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N.M. disability payments skyrocket

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The number of people in the United States receiving disability payments through the Social Security system has increased significantly over the past decade, but New Mexico has exceeded even that growth.

The number of former workers in New Mexico getting Social Security Disability Insurance grew by nearly 66 percent from 2002 to 2011, according to a review of data from the Social Security Administration.

During the same period, the growth nationally was nearly 55 percent.

In sheer numbers, 60,803 New Mexicans were getting SSDI disabled worker benefits as of December 2011, the latest annual data available. Nationally, that figure was 8,575,544.

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Those numbers were up from 35,589 and 5,543,981, respectively, as of December 2002.

The national increase is variously attributed to demographics, economic factors, and the expansion of eligibility criteria in the 1980s, and there appears to be no clear consensus about the reason for the upswing.

New Mexico’s recession-racked economy seems like a logical backdrop. The state “has had a really hard time bouncing back from the Great Recession … so we end up with a very significant problem of people who are out of work for extended periods of time,” said Lee Reynis, director of the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico.

However, the Social Security Administration data indicate strong, steady growth in the number of disability recipients in New Mexico even in the early 2000s, before the recession. So at first blush, the leap in numbers and the recent recession don’t appear linked, Reynis said.

A May 3 report from the Center for American Progress says the aging of the baby boom generation is a major piece of the puzzle; a workforce with more workers in their 50s and early 60s means more workers with serious disabilities.

And more women are meeting the work-history standard required to qualify for disability, the CAP report said. Since 1980, the share of working-age women who meet the work-history standard has increased from 50 percent to 68 percent.

Declining job opportunities for older workers, especially those with severe physical limitations, have likely contributed to the increase, the report said.

A report from the National Bureau of Economic Research, however, says the most important factor was federal legislation in 1984 that required a more liberal definition of disability – for example, less strict criteria for mental disorders and a greater weight on pain.

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That increased the probability that people with mental disorders or musculoskeletal conditions were awarded disability benefits, with resulting big jumps in awards related to those conditions, according to the report.

A Wall Street Journal article on April 10 quoted David Autor, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has studied the disability program, as saying many newcomers to the disability program are low-wage earners with limited skills who are “pretty unlikely to want to forfeit economic security for a precarious job market.”

People who get disability insurance are eligible for Medicare after a two-year waiting period, which could encourage recipients to stay put, the Wall Street Journal article suggested.

According to the CAP report, as of March about 8.8 million people in the United States were getting disability insurance, with the average monthly benefit about $1,129. About 1.9 million children and 160,000 spouses of disabled workers also receive supplemental benefits, the report says.

The Social Security Administration also administers a separate disability program, Supplemental Security Income, which is not tied to work history.

Disability insurance is funded by payroll tax contributions from workers and their employers. Applicants have to have worked long enough and recently enough to qualify, and be determined to have a disability that prevents them from doing work they did before, or adjusting to other work.

But where they live and what jobs are available also can be taken into account.

“My assumption is that a lot of those folks are on the margin of employment, and they’re among those who have lost jobs and are trying to get back into the workforce and have simply been unsuccessful at doing that,” said Jim Jackson, executive director of Disability Rights New Mexico. The organization advocates for the disabled but doesn’t handle disability claims.

In New Mexico, eligibility decisions for the SSDI program are made by New Mexico Disability Determination Services, a federally funded agency operating under the state Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, which is in turn under the Public Education Department.

Deputy Director Daniel Roper declined to comment about the disability program’s expansion over the recent decade, referring questions to a Social Security Administration spokeswoman in Dallas, Sarah Schultz-Lackey. She was unable to respond to questions on Monday, but she has told other media outlets that the federal agency doesn’t have information on why the numbers fluctuate.

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