Why Are Poverty Rates for People With Disabilities So High?

My last post tried to answer a straightforward question: How many District of Columbia residents with disabilities lived in poverty last year? The answer was about one in three, but rates were higher for children and working-age adults, especially the former.

Computing the rates is a whole lot easier than explaining why they’re so high. No source I’ve found comes close. Here’s what I’ve pieced together from federal data and other research for the nation as a whole.

Poverty As Both Cause and Effect for Children With Disabilities

The poverty rate for children with disabilities is high nationwide, though not as high as in the District, where it’s 45.5% of children old enough for the Census Bureau’s survey to have captured all the major types of disabilities they may have.

Such research as we have indicates that children are more likely to be disabled if they’re borne by poor mothers and into poor families. Inadequate nutrition, including actual hunger is a factor. Likewise inadequate health care and exposure to toxins in the environment, e.g., lead paint, pollutants in the air.

Stress itself has toxic effects on children’s physical and mental development. And living in poverty is stressful — not only because of the material hardships and instability children suffer, but because the stresses sometimes cause parents to neglect or even abuse their children — or one parent to abuse the other.

At the same time, childhood disability contributes to family poverty. Parents who would otherwise work can’t — or can’t work as much — because they need to care for their disabled child. Parents here generally means mothers, the research tells us.

Working-Age, But Not Many Working

The poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities is somewhat easier to understand. They may be working-age, but relatively few of them are working — only 26.8% of those 16-64 last year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

About one in three were working part time — a higher percent than for their counterparts without a disability.

And both they and the full-timers may, in some cases, have gotten paid as little as a quarter an hour because some employers may legally set wages based on their own assessments of productivity.

An additional 14.7% of working-age adults with disabilities were jobless and actively looking for work — about the same percent as in 2012. The unemployment rate for their counterparts without a disability dropped to less than half this rate.

Rolling the working and looking-for-work figures together, we find that more than two-thirds of working-age adults with disabilities were not counted as part of the labor force.

How many could have worked, but became utterly discouraged by employers who wouldn’t even consider them — or who wouldn’t accommodate their disabilities, as the law requires — is an open question.

Some of the dropouts may have worked before they became disabled. If they’d worked long enough and earned enough, they might have qualified for SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance).

But disability alone wouldn’t suffice. The Social Security Administration would have had to decide that they couldn’t earn much, if anything from work because of their disability and wouldn’t be able to for at least a year.

The benefits might — or might not — lift them over the poverty threshold. Probably wouldn’t for those whose annual earnings averaged somewhere around what a full-time, minimum wage job pays.

Adults who can’t meet the SSDI standards may instead receive Supplemental Security Income benefits if their incomes are low enough, their cash and near-cash assets small and, again, if SSA decides they’re too severely disabled to “engage in substantial gainful activity.”*

SSI lifted about 3.9 million people out of poverty last year. But their incomes couldn’t have been far below the poverty threshold without it. The maximum annual benefit for an individual was about 73% of the threshold for a single person — less, of course, for a family of any size.

Late-Onset Disabilities for Some

Presumably the poverty rate for seniors with disabilities reflects in part the fact that some incurred their disabilities long before their “golden years” — born with them, in some cases, in others early enough so that their Social Security retirement benefits are very low.

But those retirement benefits, plus SSI or draw-downs from their own retirement accounts probably explain why their poverty rate is lowest among the age groups I’ve carved out. Doesn’t mean that all those who cleared the threshold are doing fine.

As I’ve said many times, the thresholds are very low. And when the Census Bureau takes account of basic living expenses, including medical out-of-pocket costs, the District’s senior poverty rate rises to 26% — higher than the rate for any state.

Would that we had SPM rates specifically for young, old and in-between people with disabilities.

* SSI benefits are also available to children with severe disabilities if their families meet somewhat similar income and asset tests and to low-income seniors, disabled or otherwise.

 

 

 

One Response to Why Are Poverty Rates for People With Disabilities So High?

  1. Molly Middle says:

    Hi Kathryn.. I just came across your blog, and I’m sure I will be visiting it and sharing the information you are publishing. Thanks for all of the work you do.

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