Workers on Disability Decrease for First Time in 17 Years

By Ali Meyer | February 20, 2014 | 2:03 PM EST

(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

( - The number of workers taking federal disability benefits decreased from December 2013 to January 2014, the first month-to-month decline in the number of workers on disability in 17 years.

In December, there were 8,942,584 workers taking federal disability benefits, according to the Social Security Administration. In January, that dropped by 12,338 to 8,930,246.

The last time the number of workers taking federal disability benefits declined from one month to the next was between January and February 1997, when the number of workers on disability dropped 28,123 from 4,385,374 to 4,357,251.

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In March 1997, the number of workers on disability started growing again and kept growing until it hit 8,942,584 December 2013—that was 202 straight months of growth in the number of workers on disability.

In addition to workers taking disability benefits, there are also children and spouses who qualify for disability benefits. The combined number of all beneficiaries—including workers, children and spouses—also declined from December to January, dropping 17,143 from 10,988,269 to 10,971,126.

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Total beneficiaries, including the numbers of spouses and children receiving benefits, have not climbed in the same uninterrupted manner as disabled workers in recent years.  For example, this year, total disability beneficiaries hit 10,978,040 in May, but then dropped below that number in the summer and early fall until it climbed back to 10,982,920 in November.

The number of workers on disability has not always inexorably increased the way it did from 1997 through 2013. As the chart shows, in the early 1980s, for example, there was a dip in the number of beneficiaries.

“In 1980, SSA's Office of Assessment examined the question of how many persons receiving DI benefits should have been removed from the rolls,” says a history of the program posted by the Social Security Administration. “It concluded that about 20 percent of beneficiaries no longer met the medical standard of eligibility and that the agency could save $2 billion per year by terminating their benefits.”

That year Congress amended the disability law. “The principal goal of persons who crafted the 1980 Amendments was to curb the growth in program costs,” says the SSA history. “They considered the cap on family benefits and the change in the way benefits were computed to be the most important provisions of the legislation. It was, however, another provision that created a political clamor: the requirement that SSA conduct a continuing disability review (CDR) at least every 3 years for beneficiaries whose disability may not be permanent.

“Before the 1980 Amendments, it had been SSA's policy to review cases in which medical improvement was expected, the beneficiary's earnings record showed work activity, or the beneficiary reported medical improvement or work activity,” says the history. “Yet the proportion of cases reviewed in the 1970s was less than 4 percent per year, and the agency itself recognized that this effort was inadequate.”

After hitting an early peak of 2,881,062 in July 1979, the number of worker taking disability benefits declined to 2,563,698 in May 1984. It then started trending generally upward again.

Despite dropping by 17,143 from December to January, the total 10,971,126 current disability beneficiaries (including workers, spouses and children receiving benefits) still exceed the total population of Greece--which, according to the CIA, is 10,772,967.