By Nelson D. Schwartz - nytimes.com
The number of Americans seeking Social Security disability benefits is plunging, a startling reversal of a decades-old trend that threatened the program’s solvency. It is the latest evidence of a stronger economy pulling people back into the job market or preventing workers from being sidelined in the first place.
The drop is so significant that the agency has revised its estimates of how long the program will continue to be financially secure. This month, the government announced that the program would not run out of money until 2032, four years later than its previous estimate last year. Two years ago, the government had warned that the funds might be depleted by 2023.
In addition to stronger economic growth, the drop reflects newly tightened standards for eligibility and the increasing number of baby boomers who are leaving the program because they have become eligible for Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare.
Fewer than 1.5 million Americans applied to the Social Security Administration for disability coverage last year, the lowest since 2002. Applications are running at an even lower rate this year, government officials say.
All told, 8.63 million workers received disability benefits in May, down from a peak of 8.96 million in September 2014. A drop of several hundred thousand may not sound like much. But it is a sharp turnaround from what seemed to be an inexorable rise, in which the disability rolls more than doubled over the past 25 years. That increase led some conservative lawmakers to criticize the program as wasteful and riddled with fraud.
The Social Security Administration expected the number of applicants to decline after the recession when the total number of beneficiaries topped out, but even government number crunchers were caught off guard by the steepness and duration of the fall.
“It has just kept dropping, by a much greater extent than we anticipated,” said Stephen C. Goss, the agency’s chief actuary. “We’re still not done — we should have a little bit more good news in 2018.”
When the economy is strong and growing, there tends to be more lower-skilled jobs available that do not require manual labor — the kind of work that many people with modest disabilities are best suited for.
“When the economy gets better, employers are more willing to look to other labor pools and be more accommodating,” said Eric Kingson, a professor of social work at Syracuse University. “Some people with disabilities also have a sense there may be something out there that fits with their needs.”