In Louisiana parishes, number of people receiving disability benefits increasing faster than national average

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INSURANCE REVOLUTION / CREATIVE COMMONS 2.0

A lengthy Washington Post story published March 30 profiles an Alabama man's experience applying for disability benefits to illustrate a larger point: applications for benefits are on the rise in economically depressed rural America. The story (and accompanying analysis) suggests that confluence of scarce jobs, poor access to health care and socio-emotional factors such as declining family and community connections may have contributed to the rise in the number of people whose health has deteriorated enough — or whose prospects are bleak enough — to turn to disability benefits, particularly in rural regions.

Writer Terrence McCoy reports:

Between 1996 and 2015, the number of working-age adults receiving disability climbed from 7.7 million to 13 million. The federal government this year will spend an estimated $192 billion on disability payments, more than the combined total for food stamps, welfare, housing subsidies and unemployment assistance. ... 

Across large swaths of the country, disability has become a force that has reshaped scores of mostly white, almost exclusively rural communities, where as many as one-third of working-age adults live on monthly disability checks, according to a Washington Post analysis of Social Security Administration statistics.

Rural America experienced the most rapid increase in disability rates over the past decade, the analysis found, amid broad growth in disability that was partly driven by demographic changes that are now slowing as disabled baby-boomers age into retirement.

A look at the interactive graph accompanying the analysis reveals that Louisiana is actually bucking this trend, though it isn't — necessarily — great news. Of the eight parishes identified as "urban" by Social Security Administration data, between the years 2004 and 2015, the number of people receiving disability benefits in five of eight parishes grew faster than the national average in that period. St. John the Baptist Parish topped the list, with 48.4 percent growth in the number of people on disability in the parish between 2004 and 2015, compared to 21 percent growth in urban areas nationally. (The number of recipients in Orleans Parish grew more slowly than average, with an increase of just 6.4 percent.)

In rural Louisiana, 18 of 29 parishes eclipsed the national average in the number of beneficiaries, with Bienville Parish (a 78.2 percent increase) and Morehouse Parish (75.8 percent) showing the greatest increases over the national average rise of 32 percent for rural counties. But considering the lists, a majority of both rural *and* urban parishes in the state experienced growth faster than the national average. The exception to this trend was in "small metro" areas statewide, where disability recipient rates grew faster than the national average in just 12 of 27 of the state's parishes.

An increase in the number of people receiving disability benefits isn't, by definition, a bad thing. As the Post article points out, changing demographics in America (aging Baby Boomers, longer lifespans in general) affected the number of recipients, and growth was anticipated by observers. But the faster-than-average rise of beneficiaries in Louisiana's urban areas, which are by definition more populous, should serve as a warning light to state lawmakers when considering policy — such as public health care programs — that may affect the growing number of people with disabilities.

There's also the larger question, raised by the Post, of whether disability benefits are being used to help defray the social costs of struggling local economies. Though the economy has continued to show slow but steady increases in the number of jobs nationwide, certain regions still are experiencing the aftermath of the Great Recession and coping with the generational shift from a manufacturing/industrial economy to a knowledge-based, service economy. If this theory holds up, Louisiana certainly fits the correct profile: its own economic woes are well-known, with a higher-than-average unemployment rate (as reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics), low wages and a state government that frequently fails to keep up with its citizens' needs.

Detailed statistics from each Louisiana parish are available in the Post story's accompanying graph.

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