Disability Enrollment Declines

April 15, 2015

The Baltimore Sun recently reported that the number of people receiving disability insurance payments from the Social Security Administration declined last year for the first time since 1983, a reduction that comes as Congress faces a deadline to fund the program or risk cutting benefits to millions of Americans.  The decline, attributed in large part to economic and demographic trends, follows years of staggering growth that made the nearly $140 billion program a target of criticism by Republicans.

Agency data show the number of beneficiaries fell by half a percent in 2014 to 10.9 million. The number of new applicants, meanwhile, dropped 14 percent from 2010.  If those reductions hold in coming months, it could quiet criticism of the program, which have become almost deafening in the past few years.

Experts predict the enrollment reduction will continue in the short term, putting a halt to the rise in the program’s costs through about 2035. The number of beneficiaries will begin to rise again after that, but at a rate consistent with overall population growth.

“The disability applications we have coming in now are even lower than we were assuming,” Stephen C. Goss, the chief actuary at the Social Security Administration, said in an interview. “We feel pretty confident about saying that, in the future, we’re going to have essentially stable growth.”  The decline in enrollment could give a political lift to Democrats’ arguments that the program is not as poorly managed as critics say and that the best way to address the looming shortfall is with a quick fix of the kind Obama is proposing.

Disability beneficiaries by year:

2010 — 10,185,886
2011 — 10,614,398
2012 — 10,890,896
2013 — 10,988,269
2014 — 10,931,092

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