Disability, Earnings, Income and Consumption

Bruce Meyer, Wallace K.C. Mok

NBER Retirement Research Center Paper No. NB 09-13
Issued in September 2009

Using longitudinal data for the period 1968-2005 for a sample of male household heads, we determine the prevalence of disability during the working years and examine how the extent of disability affects a range of outcomes, including earnings, income, and consumption. We have seven main findings. First, disability rates are high. We divide the disabled along two dimensions based on the persistence and severity of their work-limiting condition. We estimate that a person reaching age 56 has a 53 percent chance of having been disabled at least once during his working years, and a 19 percent chance that he has begun a chronic and severe disability. Second, the economic consequences of disability are frequently profound. Ten years after disability onset, a person with a chronic and severe disability on average experiences a 68 percent decline in earnings, a 32 percent decline in after-tax income, a 22 percent decline in food and housing consumption and a 21 percent decline in food consumption. Third, the various economic consequences differ sharply across disability groups. The outcome declines for those with a chronic and severe disability are often more than twice as large as those for the average disabled. Fourth, our findings show the partial and incomplete roles that individual savings, family support and social insurance play in reducing the consumption drop that follows disability. Only about half of this most disabled group reports receiving Social Security Disability Insurance or Supplemental Security Income. Fifth, we find a noticeable fall in earnings and income prior to the onset of a reported disability. Consumption also falls somewhat, suggesting that future disability is partially but incompletely predictable in the short run. Sixth, time use and detailed consumption data further indicate that disability is associated with a decline in wellbeing. Seventh, the quantities we have estimated, combined with elasticities from the literature, allow us to examine the optimality of current compensation for the disabled. We find that the current compensation for our most disabled group appears to be lower than is optimal.

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