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The number of people on disability in NM jumped 58.7% in nine years

Monday, June 10, 2013 13:31
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UP, UP, UP: While the numbers of those on disability have risen 39.5 percent nationally, it's gone up 58.7 percent in New Mexico.

UP, UP, UP: While the numbers of those on disability have risen 39.5 percent nationally, it’s gone up 58.7 percent in New Mexico.

As Americans receiving work disability have grown to record numbers, the increase in the Land of Enchantment has far outpaced the national average.A review of figures from the Social Security Administration by New Mexico Watchdog shows that between 2003 and 2011 (the most recent year available for states), 22,488 more people in New Mexico are receiving work disability — a figure large enough to fill to capacity The Pit in Albuquerque and still put another 7,000 into the Pan American Center in Las Cruces.

That’s an increase of 58.7 percent, compared to a 39.5 percent spike in national numbers:

disability nm numbers 2003-2011

According to numbers from 2009, New Mexico ranked 19th in the country in the percentage of the working age population (between 18 and 64) listed as disabled.

But the rate at which people in New Mexico are getting approved for disability benefits is about the same as the national average.

For the 2011 fiscal year, New Mexico’s Disability Determination Services in Albuquerque approved 35.9 percent of disability claims at the initial application level and 15.3 percent of claims at the reconsideration level (the first level of appeal in New Mexico).

That’s close to the national average for 2010 of 36.0 percent and 13.8 percent.

New Mexico Watchdog contacted Daniel Roper, the state’s disability determination director, to talk about the state’s figures. Roper referred us to New Mexico’s regional office in Dallas.

When asked about the nearly 60 percent increase in New Mexico’s disability numbers, Sarah Schultz-Lackey, the regional communications director in Dallas for the Social Security Administration, said, “As far as defending the numbers, the numbers fluctuate for a variety of reasons…That type of thing, we are not in position to say why the numbers have fluctuated 60 percent…As a government agency, we don’t particularly study why individuals may file more often.”

The figures New Mexico Watchdog discovered come as the national numbers for disability benefits reach record highs.

Last month, the Social Security Administration reported that 10.9 million Americans are on disability, marking the 195th consecutive month the figure had increased over the previous month. The last time the number went down from one month to another was back in 1997.

Why have numbers increased so much?

In 1968, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 51 full-time workers for each worker collecting disability. By April 2013, there were only 13 Americans working full-time for each worker on disability.

Generally speaking, states like New Mexico that have higher rates of poverty also have higher rates of workers on disability.

When a recession hits, not only does the unemployment rate go up but so does the number of people applying for disability benefits.

“When you see unemployment rates rising, you see disability moving with it,” Tad DeHaven of the free-market Cato Institute think-tank said last month to the 24/7 Wall St. online journal.

“Claims for disability benefits typically increase in a slow economy,” Schultz-Lackey said in a follow-up e-mail to New Mexico Watchdog, adding, “baby boomers are reaching disability-prone years.”

But a study done by two experts from the National Bureau of Economic Research say only 13 percent of the growth in the receipt of disability benefits in men and just 4 percent for women was due to population aging.

The NBER study maintains the biggest reason is that in 1980 under Jimmy Carter and again in 1984 under Ronald Reagan, the government expanded its definitions of what qualifies a worker as disabled.

Figures from the Center for American Progress and the Brookings Institution — two think tanks known to be left of center on the political dial — show that while the SSA’s approvals for disability claims resulting from causes such as cancer, strokes and heart attacks have remained constant from 1981 to 2009, benefits have jumped dramatically for those with musculoskeletal and mental disorders during those same years.

Chart courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

Chart courtesy of the Wall Street Journal

There has also been the growing — and lucrative — business of attorneys specializing in disability claims for clients. The Binder & Binder law firm, fronted by Charles Binder, who appears in a cowboy hat on TV commercials in the New York City area, made $88 million in 2010, according to a Wall Street Journal article.

A recent columnist at Forbes magazine described the $200 billion-a-year taxpayers spend as the nation’s “Disability-Industrial Complex,” and even National Public Radio drew attention earlier this year when it ran a multi-part series taking a critical look at the skyrocketing numbers of workers who qualify for payments.

The NPR series went so against the typical left/right narrative that it prompted a number of former Social Security commissioners to post an open letter to NPR, decrying the series.

While admitting, “It is true that DI (disability insurance) has grown significantly in the past 30 years,” the letter writers say the series “sensationalizes this growth.”

Contact Rob Nikolewski at and reach him on Twitter at @nmwatchdog

Here’s the Social Security Administration’s link to the national disability numbers:

Here’s the link to the 2011 numbers for New Mexico:

And here’s the link showing NM’s disability rate approval is about the same as the national average:


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