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As the Americans with Disabilities Act Turns 25, Government Policies Help and Hurt

The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was signed 25 years ago last Saturday. The law has certainly improved disabled Americans’ access to jobs, workplaces and public spaces—albeit at significant expense for taxpayers and some businesses.
But in recent years we have seen an explosion of people on disability benefits, which has financially imperiled the Disability Insurance (DI) part of the Social Security Trust Fund. [See the figure.]

Celebrating, as it were, the anniversary of the ADA, the U.S. Census Bureau released a disability fact sheet. It counted 56.7 million Americans as disabled in 2010. However, less than half of them receive some type of benefits.
According to CNN Money, the government spent about $250 billion in 2011 paying claims to 23 million Americans.
Of that number, nearly 11 million disabled workers and their dependents currently receive DI benefits from the Social Security Trust Fund. We’ve had about 210 months in which the number of DI recipients has grown.
As a result, the Social Security Trustees tell us that the DI portion of the Trust Fund will be depleted in just a little over a year. Arguably, it’s already been depleted; the government has been paying out more in benefits than it’s been taking in, thereby drawing down its non-negotiable IOUs that represent the Trust Fund’s borrowed surplus.
Why the steady growth in disability-benefit recipients?  Several factors.
The U.S. population is aging, and an older population is likely to have more disabled people. Another factor is that more women are receiving DI benefits, in part because more are in the workforce. And leniency over what qualifies as a disability may have contributed.
But the 2007-09 recession was also a factor. When people can’t find jobs, many will apply for disability benefits—in some cases stretching the truth in order to qualify. However, that disability-recipient expansion usually tapers off after the recession ends; this time it’s continued growing.
Why?  Perhaps because so many Americans are still struggling financially. The Rasmussen polling firm regularly queries how many people think the country is in a recession, and that figure has remained at about 45 percent for months—remarkable, five years after a recession’s end.
And while they may not technically be correct, President Obama’s anti-economic growth policies have stunted the economy, making it feel like a continued recession for millions of Americans, many of whom try to qualify as disabled as their best hope for some income.