November 7, 2000

Economic Growth Excludes Disabled

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Although the economic boom of the 1990s is considered to have increased the prosperity for Americans overall, one group was left behind. The nearly 10 percent of working-age people with disabilities did not experience the higher rates of employment or rapid income gains that the rest of the country enjoyed, according to a Cornell University study, in conjunction with the Federal Reserve Bank.

“By 1998, [the employment rates of men and women with disabilities] were still below the 1992 business trough-year level,” said Prof. Richard V. Burkhauser, the Sarah Gibson Blanding Professor of policy analysis and management, in a press release. Burkhauser co-wrote the study with Andrew J. Houtenville, a researcher with the Cornell Program on Employment and Disability and Mary C. Daly of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.

Following the economic expansion from 1992 to 1998, the probability of employment among working-age individuals with disabilities had decreased and the share of their household income coming from their salary had fallen, according to the study.

“Despite receiving higher Social Security disability payments, many working-age people with disabilities lost economic ground while most other Americans gained over the 1990s,” Burkhauser said.

The reason for this trend is under “a lot of dispute,” Burkhauser said. “It is a muddle.”

Some economists think that the low employment of people with disabilities was the result of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) backfiring, causing employers to be less willing to hire people with disabilities.

The ADA, which came into full effect in 1994, requires employers to provide reasonable accommodations to people with disabilities who are seeking employment. Employers face law suits if they fail to comply with the federal regulation.

Another explanation for the low employment of people with disabilities is that they cannot risk working jobs that do not provide health coverage and prefer to receive disability payments from federal programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income.

“The percent of people applying for disability benefits increased in the 1990s,” Burkhauser said.

For people with disabilities, finding a job is coupled with the fear of losing benefits.

“The majority of people who have a disability want to work. The problem is once they start a job they will lose their [benefits],” said Shawn Galbreath, director of community relations and development at Challenge Industries in Ithaca. Challenge Industries is a non-profit agency providing employment and vocational services for people with disabilities in Tompkins County.

“There are changes underway in federal and state law to build benefit bridges to help people on subsidies enter the workforce without immediately losing benefits,” Galbreath said. This would allow people with disabilities to test-drive a job and not risk losing benefits.

“Ithaca is a rich community in terms of services for people with disabilities,” said Larry Roberts, director of the Finger Lakes Independence Center. The FLIC is a non-profit organization that helps people with disabilities find services in the community. The organization holds job fairs to connect employers to employees.

“My sense is employers are willing to talk to qualified individuals with disabilities,” Roberts said.

Archived article by Inna Bruter