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Social Security Disability Demographics in Rural America

Synopsis: Document examines several employment statistics and rates of disability in certain rural areas of the United States.1

Author: Disabled World

Published: 2013-07-29 Updated: 2013-11-15

Main Digest

The year 1957 found the Social Security Disability system beginning as a way to help people who were too ill to work. By the year 2009, greater than 9.6 million people in the United States were counted as being disabled. The rates of disability in rural areas of the United States are 80% higher than they are in the cities of this nation.

More than one-fourth of working-age adults in Buchanan County, Virginia for example, received disability payments from the Social Security Administration in the year 2009. There were almost 16,000 working-age adults in Buchanan County at this time; the County is a coal mining one next to Kentucky and West Virginia. Slightly more than 4,400 people were counted as being disabled.

Of the more than 9.6 million people in the United States who received Social Security Disability payments, qualification meant showing they were unable to work due to a disability, and that the disability was expected to last for more than one year. Disability benefits are received by those who experience persistent physical or mental forms of disabilities such as chronic back pain, cancer, schizophrenia, or persistent anxiety. The qualification process for the Social Security Disability program has become more difficult over time, experiencing backlogs of applicants.

Chart showing the percentages of people receiving Social Security Disability by area
Chart showing the percentages of people receiving Social Security Disability by area

Interestingly, even though the coal mining region of the Appalachian mountains has a number of Counties with greater than 10% of the adult population qualifying for the Social Security Disability program, other counties find only a mere 1-2% of people qualifying as being disabled. In Washington, D.C. Where Social Security is at the very center of a national debate concerning federal spending, only 3.2% of adults qualify as being disabled. By contrast, there are notable areas of high disability rates among people of working-age in the states of Mississippi, Alabama, Maine, and in the Ozarks.

On a national level, 4.6% of adults received disabilities benefits through the Social Security Administration. In the rural areas of the United States, 7.6% of adults received Social Security Disability benefits. Areas with small cities with populations between 10,000-50,000 found 6.5% of working-age adults qualifying for the Social Security Disability program. It is clear that rural areas are more dependent upon disability benefits than metropolitan areas. The average monthly benefit in the year 2009 was $1,064.

Disability payments are concentrated in Counties where the jobs available require manual labor and where unemployment is high. Timbering and mining are big industries in a number of the Counties with the highest percentages of people on the Social Security Disability program. The same Counties are also ones with historically high rates of unemployment.

Overall, approximately 6% of the working-age population in the United States receives disability payments through either the Social Security Disability program (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), yet some southern and Appalachian states have higher rates of more than 10%. Some critics choose to interpret the disparity as evidence of issues with the programs themselves, but the fact is that it reflects some key economic and demographic factors.

Chart showing key factors related to the receipt of Social Security Disability in Southern and Appalachian states
Chart showing key factors related to the receipt of Social Security Disability in Southern and Appalachian states

A workforce that is less-educated is certainly the most powerful factor. States with low rates of high school graduates usually have high rates of those who receive benefits from Social Security programs. Where older workers are concerned, SSDI and SSI explicitly consider educational and vocational factors when determining a person's eligibility. The reason for this is because people who are less-educated whose mental or physical impairment is so severe they are unable to perform their previous work are less able to adapt to other employment than those who are better-educated.

The risk of experiencing a form of disability rises sharply as a person ages. The average beneficiary of SSDI is in their late middle age; 70% are over the age of 50, while 30% are over the age of 60. Appalachia and New England have a higher median age than most of the rest of the United States, something that increases their rates of those on SSDI or SSI when compared with states that have younger people such as the West and Southwest.

Immigrants, particularly those who have recently arrived, are much less likely than people born in the United States to receive SSDI or SSI. States with large foreign-born populations such as California, Nevada, New Jersey, Florida, New York, and Texas have fewer people who receive SSDI or SSI than one might expect based simply upon their educational and age characteristics.

In states where a large portion of the workforce is employed in mining, forestry, and manufacturing such as the Midwest and a number of Appalachian and southern states, tend to have more people on SSDI or SSI than states with more service-oriented economies. The jobs are many times physically demanding and involve skills that do not readily transfer to other types of work, two factors that the SSDI and SSI programs eligibility rules for older applicants take into consideration.

Poverty rates also help to explain participation in SSI, a program that is means-tested, yet have less bearing on the SSDI program which is not. Unemployment rates explain very little of the geographic variation. While higher unemployment rates boost the number of applicants for Social Security disability programs, researchers have concluded that the additional applicants are also more likely to find themselves being denied.

The experience of a form of disability is both a personal and economic hardship, not only for the worker themselves, but for their family members. The United States of America should make efforts to assist workers with disabilities through rehabilitation opportunities, universal health care, and job accommodations such as equipment to assist them with the performance of jobs. The United States of America must recognize that the Social Security Disability Insurance and SSI programs are crucial parts of this nation's safety net.

Resources and Citations:

Disability, Geography of

In recent years, the sociospatial causes and consequences of disability (i.e., of being socially constructed as negatively different on the basis of mental or physical bodily impairment), has become a significant focus of critical geographic inquiry. These studies treat disability not as a given consequence of bodily impairment, but as a sociospatial process of marking impaired bodies as negatively 'other' and, on the basis of this negative difference, marginalizing and excluding the disabled from spaces of everyday life.

Daily Yonder: The geography of disability

More than one out of four working age adults (15 to 64) in Buchanan County, Virginia, was receiving disability payments from Social Security in 2009. There were nearly 16,000 working age adults in Buchanan, a coal mining county nudged up next to Kentucky and West Virginia. Just over 4,400 were disabled.

Other At Risk Populations

The Office of Minority Health and Health Equity aims to accelerate CDC's health impact in the U.S population and to eliminate health disparities for vulnerable populations as defined by race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, geography, gender, age, disability status, risk status related to sex and gender, and among other populations identified as at-risk for health disparities.

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Full List of U.S. Social Security Publications

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Full List of Disabled World News Updates

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Cite Page: Journal: Disabled World. Language: English (U.S.). Author: Disabled World. Electronic Publication Date: 2013-07-29. Last Revised Date: 2013-11-15. Reference Title: Social Security Disability Demographics in Rural America, Source: <a href=>Social Security Disability Demographics in Rural America</a>. Abstract: Document examines several employment statistics and rates of disability in certain rural areas of the United States. Retrieved 2021-03-01, from - Reference Category Number: DW#121-9834.