Social Security Disability Insurance: Participation Trends and Their Fiscal Implications

July 22, 2010

Economic and Budget Issue Brief

The Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) program pays cash benefits to nonelderly adults (those younger than age 66) who are judged to be unable to perform substantial work because of a disability but who have worked in the past; the program also pays benefits to some of those adults dependents. In 2009, the Disability Insurance program paid benefits to almost 8 million disabled beneficiaries and about 2 million of those beneficiaries spouses and children.

Between 1970 and 2009, the number of people receiving DI benefits more than tripled, from 2.7 million to 9.7 million (unless otherwise specified, all years are calendar years). That jump, which significantly outpaced the increase in the working-age population during that period, is attributable to several changesin characteristics of that population, in federal policy, and in opportunities for employment. In addition, during those years, the average inflation-adjusted cost per person receiving DI benefits rose from about $6,900 to about $12,800 (in 2010 dollars). As a result, inflation-adjusted expenditures for the DI program, including administrative costs, increased nearly sevenfold between 1970 and 2009, climbing from $18 billion to $124 billion (in 2010 dollars). Most DI beneficiaries, after a two-year waiting period, are also eligible for Medicare; the cost of those benefits in fiscal year 2009 totaled about $70 billion.

Under current law, the DI program is not financially sustainable. Its expenditures are drawn from the Disability Insurance Trust Fund, which is financed primarily through a payroll tax of 1.8 percent; the fund had a balance of $204 billion at the end of 2009. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projects that by 2015, the number of people receiving DI benefits will increase to 11.4 million and total expenditures will climb to $147 billion (in 2010 dollars; see Figure 1). However, tax receipts credited to the DI trust fund will be about 20 percent less than those expenditures, and three years later, in 2018, the trust fund will be exhausted, according to CBOs estimates. Without legislative action to reduce the DI programs outlays, increase its dedicated federal revenues, or transfer other federal funds to it, the Social Security Administration will not have the legal authority to pay full DI benefits beyond that point.

A number of changes could be implemented to address the trust funds projected exhaustion. Some would increase revenues dedicated to the program; others would reduce outlays. One approach to reducing expenditures on DI benefits would be to establish policies that would make work a more viable option for people with disabilities. However, little evidence is available on the effectiveness of such policies, and their costs might more than offset any savings from reductions in DI benefits.