The number of Oklahomans on federal disability programs has soared over the past decade, resulting in nearly 8 percent of the working-age population collecting a government check each month.
In 2011, the latest year for which figures are available, nearly 187,000 Oklahomans of working age received disability benefits — a 73 percent increase since 2000.
The total benefits, which included those for disabled workers' spouses and children, were about $173 million.
Counties with the highest shares were in high-poverty southeastern Oklahoma, according to the latest county-level data from the Social Security Administration. Pushmataha and Choctaw counties' rates were more than 15 percent.
Federal disability programs have come under scrutiny by media and others in recent months because of the national long-term rise in disability claims. Among the reasons cited for the trend: Some states have hired companies to transfer people from welfare to disability programs because states pay part of welfare costs but none for disability. Also, attorneys are recruiting clients with promises to try to get them on disability.
However, a 2006 report by the Social Security Administration attributed most of the rise to growing health problems among aging baby boomers and others and recessionary times that pushed more of the injured on to disability because they couldn't find work.
Another factor is federal policy changes, including adding mental health to the conditions eligible for disability benefits, the agency found. Also, more women entered the workforce in the 1970s and 1980s, meaning more workers qualified for disability benefits.
When asked why disability has expanded so rapidly, Sarah Schultz-Lackey, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration in Dallas, said, “We administer the program, but we don't guess to why people apply.”
How claims work
Disability claims are handled under two different programs: Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. The former provides money based on a person's previous wages or salary and amount of Social Security taxes paid, whether or not the person is poor. The latter makes disability payments only to the poor or blind. Some people qualify for both programs.
The federal government defines disability as an inability to engage in work due to physical or mental impairments that are expected to result in death or last for a year or more. Work history, job opportunities and location also are factors.
For example, if someone with a history of physical labor hurts his back severely and lives in a rural area where most of the jobs involve manual labor, chances are good the person will qualify for disability, Schultz-Lackey said. If someone with a history of working at a desk hurts his back and similar desk jobs are available in the area, the person may not get disability, she said.
About 66 percent of disability claims filed with the Social Security Administration are denied. Applicants can appeal, and the case can end up before an administrative law judge.
In Oklahoma and nationally, at least six of 10 appeals are denied or dismissed.
The rising number of claims has overburdened the judges overseeing disability cases, according to a lawsuit filed in April by the Association of Administrative Law Judges against the Social Security Administration.
The lawsuit alleges that the administration is pressuring judges to meet annual quotas and, as a result, judges don't have time to properly evaluate complicated cases.
With baby boomers getting older, growth in disability claims is likely to continue. People on disability typically remain on the program for life.
The purpose of the programs is to transition the disabled into retirement and provide aid for the severely disabled, Schultz-Lackey said. Critics say the program gives permanent disability to too many people who don't need it and promotes dependence on federal subsidies.
Schultz-Lackey defended the program.
“Things get overblown,” she said.
“I think we have something that works very well, and I'm very proud of it.”