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Disability insurance and the U.S. economy

6 min read


When evaluating the health of the U.S. economy, most Americans look at unemployment figures as a key statistic. Many, however, ignore another key statistic: Americans who receive disability benefits.

In December 2011, the Social Security Administration noted that by county, more than 55 million Americans received disability (OASDI) benefits. Up from 44.7 million in 2001, this number has steadily increased in the past several years. As a comparison, in December 2011, 14 million Americans received unemployment benefits.

Illness or an accident prevents many Americans from working. They need disability benefits to survive. A recent story on NPR’s “This American Life” titled “Trends with Benefits” reported that in several counties, almost 1 in 4 working-aged residents receive disability benefits. What do we know about these counties? Is unemployment high there? Is education attainment a factor? Do these residents work out? The NPR story described one case where a doctor diagnosed a disability based partly on a patient’s education. Is there a correlation among educational attainment, fitness and disability?

Disability beneficiaries by county

On average, 7.3 percent of working-aged adults (18-64) receive disability benefits from the U.S. government. The percentage by county varies immensely throughout the country. Counties with the highest percentages of disability benefit payments for working-aged adults are: Lewis County, Idaho (27.7%), Buchanan County, Va. (26.0%) and Dickenson County, Va. (24.6%).

Many counties with high percentages of working-aged adults receiving disability benefits are in the South. In 16 counties, at least 20% of working-aged adults receive disability benefits. All of these counties are in the South, except for two, which are located in Michigan.

Some believe that areas with a high percentage of the population on disability correlates to high unemployment. This may be the case in some areas, but not in others. These two statistics tell different stories about the economy.

In 2011, counties with the highest unemployment rates were Imperial County, Calif. (29.7%), Yuma County, Ariz. (26.8%) and West Hampton Census Area, Alaska (20.7%), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The percentage of working-aged adults of these counties that received disability benefits were 7.4, 6.8, and 6.8, respectively. In December 2011, the U.S. unemployment rate was 8.5%.

Many counties with a high percentage of disability recipients for working-aged adults also have high unemployment rates. However, several counties in the West with high unemployment rates have rates for disability benefits for working-aged adults lower than the U.S. rate of 7.3%.

Compare counties with high percentages of disability benefit payments for working-aged adults to unemployment rates:

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Residents in counties with the highest percentages of working-aged adults receiving disability benefit payments also have lower rates of college degrees than the average American. According to the Census Bureau, 17.7% of Americans have earned a college degree.

In counties where at least 20% of the working-aged population receives disability benefits, just 6.4% of the population has earned a college degree, on average. The rates vary from 4.3% up to 14.2%. Although no information is available about the education attainment of disability benefits recipients, there does seem to be a correlation between counties with a high percentage of working-aged people receiving disability benefits and a lack of college degrees.

Explore more about the percentages of adults who have attained a college degree in this interactive map:

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Healthy lifestyles

How much people exercise can have a great effect how an eventual need for disability benefits. It is more likely that people who lead a healthy lifestyle might be less likely to need disability benefits in the future, unless they are hurt or ill. One statistic that determines an area’s health is the number of people who exercise at a gym twice per week.

People who live in the South and Midwest are less likely to exercise regularly than people who live along the Eastern Seaboard or in the West. As noted above, working-aged adults living in counties in the South are more likely to receive disability benefits. This correlates to people who are less likely to exercise. Although people in the Midwest are less likely to exercise, overall, they are also less likely than the average American to receive disability benefits.

Click on image to enlarge map.

What types of Americans are the least likely to exercise? Esri, a geographic information systems company, developed a Tapestry Segmentation system that classifies U.S. residential neighborhoods into 65 unique market segments based on socioeconomic and demographic characteristics.

For example, residents of Southern Satellites neighborhoods are the least likely to exercise. These neighborhoods are found primarily in the rural South. They are comprised of married-couple families who work in the manufacturing and service industries. Residents have a median age of 39.9 years and a median household income of $36,759.

Why this matters

Growing numbers of disability claims affect the economy significantly. If more people are working, paying taxes and spending their disposable income, the U.S. economy will improve. Government agencies must understand the types of people are receiving disability benefits, where they are located, and if possible, what steps can be taken to get them back to work. Keeping their current employees can also help companies avoid hiring and training costs. Businesses can offer wellness and education programs to improve employee fitness and encourage them to work toward a degree.

There is a clear trend in the South where a higher percentage of Americans are receiving disability benefits — especially among working-aged adults. There are various outside factors likely contributing to this high percentage. Studying the lifestyles of residents in these areas can help government agencies and companies better understand why some areas have a higher rate of benefit recipients than others. In the South, a lower percentage of residents hold a college degree and a lower percentage of those who exercise regularly than in other parts of the country. However, these are just two factors that may contribute to the issue. This knowledge can help the government and companies adjust their programs to address the issues in order to keep people in the work force.

More information about Esri’s data can be found at or to learn more about Esri in general, go to

Pam Allison is a digital media, marketing strategist and location intelligence consultant. You can visit her blog at