Washington Post Goes After Disability Program: Working People Have Too Much Money

April 09, 2017

At a time of unprecedented inequality, the Washington Post is quick to seize on the country’s real problems: a Social Security disability program that is too generous. The editorial was good enough not to get bogged down in phony arguments. It tells readers explicitly that rampant fraud is not a problem:

“Nor is the program’s growth the result of rampant fraud, as sometimes alleged; structural factors such as population aging explain much recent growth. Nevertheless, at a time of declining workforce participation, especially among so-called prime-age males (those between 25 and 54 years old), the nation’s long-term economic potential depends on making sure work pays for all those willing to work. And from that point of view, the Social Security disability program needs reform.”

So the problem is that the program is too generous for people who might still be able to work in spite of a disability.

Just to get some orientation, the benefit that the Post considers to be too generous averages $1,170 a month. This was roughly six minutes of pay for our current Secretary of State, in his former job as the head of Exxon-Mobil.

The concern about the low employment rates (EPOP) in the United States is reasonable, but it bears no obvious relationship to the Social Security disability insurance program. The EPOP for prime-age workers (ages 25–54) has fallen by almost four percentage points since 2000, with no increase in the generosity of the disability program. In fact, if we combine the number of workers receiving disability and workers compensation, there has been little change in the share of the working-age population receiving benefits over this period.

In fact, the United States ranks near the bottom of OECD countries in the generosity of its benefits, yet it also ranks near the bottom in the employment rate for prime-age workers. In its most recent data, the OECD put the EPOP for prime-age workers in the United States at 78.2 percent. This compares 83.3 percent for the Netherlands, 84.2 percent for Germany, and 86.0 percent for Sweden, all countries that spend considerably more money on disability benefits than the United States.

The most obvious way to increase employment for prime-age workers is to deal with the demand side of the story. For example, it might be a good idea if the Fed stopped trying to slow the economy by raising interest rates. It would also be good if the pay of ordinary workers were increased by measures that reduce the pay of those at the top. Free trade in prescription drugs and free trade for doctors are near the top of my list. (Rigged: How Globalization and the Rules of the Modern Economy Were Structured to Make the Rich Richer gives more of the story. [It’s free].) We can also follow the path of other countries and have more work supports, like access to low cost quality child care.

But in Donald Trump’s America, the priority is to take away as much as possible from those at the middle and bottom so the rich can have more. And the Washington Post is determined to do its part.


Addendum: Where are the Robots?

I forgot to ask this important question. Just last week the Post ran a column that had us terrified that the robots were going to take all the jobs. Now they want us to worry that we don’t have enough workers because they are all living on their $1170 a month disability benefit. In economics this is known as the “which way is up problem?” Ostensibly intelligent people don’t have the slightest clue what they are talking about when it comes to the economy.


Correction: An earlier version put the monthly benefit at one hour of pay for Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. That would imply annual pay in the range of $2 million a year. In fact, his pay came to more than $20 million a year.


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