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The Decline in the Employment Rate for People with Disabilities: Bad Data, Bad Health, or Bad Policy?

Burkhauser, R.V. and Stapleton, D.C. (2004). The decline in the employment rate for people with disabilities: Bad data, bad health, or bad policy? Journal of Vocational Rehabilitation, 20(3), 185-201.

Article Summary

Cornell University's Rehabilitation Research and Training Center for Economic Research on Employment Policy for Persons with Disabilities held a conference in October 2001 to address research findings that the employment rates for individuals with disabilities had significantly declined over the 1990s business cycle (1989-2000). The authors examine the findings as presented at this conference and in related literature. Data from the Current Population Survey (CPS) indicates that while the employment rate for the general population of the United States increased over this period that of individuals with disabilities declined, as their income appeared to become more dependent on Federal government programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplementary Security Income (SSI).

This study first addresses the concern that CPS data could be skewed due to the manner in which individuals with disabilities identify a "work disability." The authors feel that this method may result in an increased number of employed workers with disabilities saying that they do not have a "work disability" because they are, in fact, employed. However, they cite other data sources and find increases in both the numbers of working-age males who are unemployed and report work limitations as well as the numbers of males who receive disability benefits.

Given this decreasing rate for individuals with disabilities at a time when the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) should have produced the opposite results, Burkhauser & Stapleton attempt to answer a second question as to the reason(s) for this trend. They address changes in demographics, levels of education, and the nature of work itself as plausible explanations. The authors also discuss the notion that increases in severe health conditions among individuals with disabilities were significant factors contributing to decreased overall rates of employment.

After considering various studies and opinions, they summarize that changes in public policy were responsible for this trend. One plausible explanation is that a fear of ADA-related and litigation may have resulted in decreased levels of hiring individuals with disabilities. More convincing, however, are the effects from the expansion of SSDI/SSI programs on the decreased employment rates for individuals with disabilities during the 1990s business cycle. They conclude with a discussion of policy changes that would make employers more likely to hire applicants with disabilities while increasing the relative advantages of working over reliance on federal subsidies.


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