The Geography of Disability
Bill Bishop/Daily Yonder
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. (To see a chart with the 50 U.S. counties with the largest percentages of disabled working age adults, jump to the next page.)
There were nearly 9.5 million Americans in 2009 who received Social Security disability payments. To qualify, they had to show that they couldn’t work due to a disability and that the disability is expected to last for at least a year. Disability benefits go to people with persistent physical or mental problems, such as cancer, chronic back pain, persistent anxiety and schizophrenia.
The distribution of the disabled is quite unequal, as the map on the next page shows.
While the coal mining region of the Appalachian mountains has a score of counties with more than ten percent of the adult population qualifying for disability payments for Social Security, in other counties, only one to two percent of residents qualify as disabled. In Washington, D.C. — where Social Security is at the center of a national debate on federal spending — only 3.2 percent of adults rely on these kinds of benefits.
There are distinct pockets of high disability rates among working age adults in Alabama and Mississippi, in Maine and in the Ozarks. These are the dark purple areas on the map, where more than 10 percent of the working age population receives a Social Security disability check.
Dark green areas have the lowest levels of disability, under 3.5 percent of the adult population in 2009.
(Click on the map to see a larger version.)
Rural areas are more dependent on disability benefits than are metropolitan areas. Nationally, 4.6 percent of adults received disability benefits through Social Security. In rural America, 7.6 percent of adults receive these payments. In counties with small cities (between 10,000 and 50,000), 6.5 percent of adults qualify.
In metropolitan counties, however, the disability rate among adults is 4.2 percent in 2009.
The rates of disability also vary widely by state. The chart below lists the states (and Washington, D.C.) in descending order of disability rates. West Virginia had the highest percentage of working age adults qualified for disability in 2009, 9.6 percent.
In Utah, only 2.8 percent of adults received a disability check in 2009 — only a third of the rate found in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.
Here are the 50 states and the District of Columbia ranked according to the percent of their working age populations receiving Social Security disability payments.
The Social Security disability program started in 1957 as a way to help people who can’t work because of health problems. There has been a surge of applicants to the program over the last decade. There were 6.6 million beneficiaries in 2000. By 2009, there were 9.6 million.
The average monthly benefit in 2009 was $1,064.
Currently, the disability fund is kept separate from retirement benefits and has a much smaller cushion of reserves.
Disability payments are concentrated in counties where the jobs require manual labor and where unemployment is traditionally high. Mining and timbering are major industries in many of the counties with the highest percentages of disability beneficiaries. These are also counties with historically high rates of unemployment.
Below is a list of the 50 counties in the country with the highest percentages of working age adults receiving Social Security disability benefits in 2009. Only three of the 50 are urban counties. Five contain small cities. The other 42 of the top 50 are rural.