November 25, 2003

Publishing Policy

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Those aspiring to shape the public policy of tomorrow may want to get a head start by reading the recently published The Decline in Employment of People with Disabilities: A Policy Puzzle by Cornell economists David C. Stapleton, director of the Cornell Center for Policy Research in Washington D.C., and Prof. Richard V. Burkhauser, chair. policy analysis and management. The book is a collection of research by Stapleton, Burkhauser and myriad other economists.

“Both Dave and I are empirical researchers, so facts matter to us, and in our work we discovered, as others have, a really amazing fact,” Burkhauser said. “Something very unusual and not predicted happened to the employment of people with disabilities in the 1990’s.”


That fact was explained and analyzed during a conference two years ago conducted by Stapleton and Burkhauser. They found that evidence from the Current Population Survey and the National Health Interview Survey suggested an alarming trend: despite recent legislation to assist the working disabled, unemployment for disabled men rose between 1993 and 1999.


“We decided after that conference that we should publish this book based on some of the papers at the conference, plus some other papers that were in progress,” Burkhauser said.

Yet for researchers and policy makers, establishing a fact is as important as its possible implications. The first two chapters of The Decline attempt to unveil the problems with CPS and NHIS data while establishing the overall validity of the data.

While the raw numbers for these two surveys may not be parallel, they show identical trends in unemployment behavior for the disabled. “It’s happening everywhere — it’s not just being driven by a certain group within the disability population. This is a very consistent pattern and it’s robust across data sets,” Burkhauser said.

Explanations having to do with high health care costs for the disabled, an increased proportion of people with worsening disabilities, and changes within the demographic structure were not found to be of great significance in explaining the decline. Burkhauser and Stapleton place less emphasis on the Americans with Disabilities Act passed in 1990 when explaining the decline in employment for males with disabilities than they do on broader eligibility requirements for placement on Supplemental Security Income rolls.

Although eligibility for SSI was expanded in 1984 and now covers many people with disabilities, expansion of SSI rolls and increased unemployment for disabled males did not coincide until the recession in 1990.

“I think it seems clear when you look at it more carefully that there is a connection because the economy in between those years [1984-1990] was very strong, and so people who had jobs, even though they had a disability, they had jobs and they didn’t need the benefits. So, when the economy went south in 1990, many of those people likely lost their jobs, and instead of getting unemployment benefits they were able to get disability benefits. And once on disability, they didn’t come back [to work] later on,” Stapleton said.

Data concerning unemployment for the disabled in nations with large social welfare programs is divergent, according to Burkhauser. While Holland has very high numbers of people claiming their generous and easy-to-obtain disability insurance, Belgium has low levels of people claiming disability insurance because most people opt instead for their comprehensive unemployment coverage.

“In Germany, it’s somewhere in between the United States and Holland. They’re very much focused on work. They have ‘rehabilitation first’ rules, so there’s heavy investment in rehabilitating people and keeping them in the labor force. But at older ages, at age 58 if you have a disability you can actually get an early retirement benefit that’s equal to the full benefit that you would get if you retired at 63,” Burkhauser said. “Fundamentally we’re all fairly wealthy industrialized countries and in principle, we shouldn’t have very great differences in our impairments and health conditions, yet we see stupendous differences in the number of people who are on the [disability] rolls in these countries.”

Researchers and academics may debate the benefits and drawbacks of various social welfare systems, but through it all, Stapleton and Burkhauser attempt to provide policy makers of today and tomorrow with lucid explanations and empiricism for the disturbing decline in employment of disabled persons over the past decade.

“[The book] is geared towards people who are interested in policy. fIt has a research flavor to it, but the presentation isn’t highly technical,” Stapleton said.

Archived article by Clark Merrefield