WASHINGTON -- Some members of Congress have begun leveling accusations that rising enrollment in Social Security's disability insurance program is evidence of growing American dependence on the government, and even a "slave" mentality.
But a new report out Monday says the rise in America's ranks of disabled to 8.3 million in 2011 stems from an aging population, a surge in women workers, changes in the law in the 1980s and a terrible economy in which disabled people can't find jobs.
The study, by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, found that the biggest jumps in the disabled population came from aging Baby Boomers. From 1996 through 2009 -- "the approximate period during which the baby-boom generation entered their 50s -- the share of disabled worker benefits awarded to older workers (age 45 and older) rose from 67 percent to 76 percent," the report said.
Meanwhile, the share of benefits going to younger workers -- between the ages of 25 to 44 -- fell from 31 percent to 22 percent.
"Baby boomers' aging would have boosted enrollment in the DI program even if no other factors had changed," the report said.
Add to that the fact that more women have entered the workforce since 1970, boosting the working population and creating a larger pool of people who can become disabled.
A change in the law during the Reagan administration that allowed more people with mental disabilities and musculoskeletal problems to qualify also increased the number of people on disability. In 1990, such people accounted for 38 percent of workers in the SSDI program. In 2010, the number had risen to 54 percent.
To be eligible for disability, a person must prove he or she is unable to work due to a medical condition that will last at least a year. The average monthly benefit is $1,111.
Conservative Fox News firebrand Bill O'Reilly is among the many commentators suggesting the rise in disability enrollees is another sign of President Barack Obama's scheme to increase dependency.
"So why has the disability rate increased more than 100 percent? I'll tell you why. It's a con. It's easy to put in a bogus disability claim," O'Reilly said earlier this month. "Right now President Obama and the Democratic Party lead the league in entitlement spending and promoting a nanny state philosophy."
O'Reilly's assertion that it's easy to file for disability may come as a surprise to people who've tried. Ann Hatzakis of Denver said she last worked in 2007, when she left her waitressing job thanks to a "perfect storm" of migraine headaches and stress caused by mental illness. She tried to find office jobs, but she said nobody would call her back.
Hatzakis said she applied for disability benefits in 2009. Like 61 percent of all first-time claims, hers was denied. She said she has since developed Fibromyalgia -- which causes chronic pain throughout her body -- but the Social Security Administration suggested there were jobs she could do regardless. For instance, she was told she could handle the night shift at a bakery.
"But this was also at the middle of the economic downturn," Hatzakis, now 45, said in an interview. "Where are those jobs, and how do I get to them?"
In addition to demographic trends, the terrible economy has helped swell the rolls of America's disabled, from about 7.4 million in 2008 to 8.6 million in 2011, according to the Social Security Administration, which used a slightly different time frame than the CBO.
"When jobs are plentiful, some people who could qualify for the DI program may choose instead to work," the CBO study said. "Conversely, when jobs are scarce, such as in economic downturns, some people with disabilities may find that their employment opportunities are especially limited, and they will instead choose to apply for DI benefits."
Indeed, the CBO said, "in the aftermath of the recent severe recession, applications for DI benefits reached a historic high, exceeding 2.9 million in calendar year 2010."
But for some lawmakers, the growing numbers of disabled Americans don't represent larger economic and demographic trends.
"Once again we are creating the sense of economic dependence which, to me is a form of modern, 21st-century slavery,” Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) said recently. West and other conservatives noted that 85,000 people were awarded disability benefits in June while the economy added just 80,000 jobs.
"American workers are leaving their jobs to get paid by the taxpayers," O'Reilly said.
Even the Republican leader in the Senate says the rise in disability enrollees is another sign of Obama's scheme to increase dependency.
"Our nation has been mired in an economic coma for years," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) argued Monday. "More people signed up for disability last month than found a job, the number of Americans on food stamps continues to climb, it’s all about to get worse -- and we’ve got a President who's on a single-minded crusade to punish business owners even more."
The CBO report was requested by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), who cited estimates that the disability program would run out of money in 2016 if changes are not made. "It was a request for hard data that policy makers can use to make decisions about whether something needs to be done about the program," said Sessions' spokesman, Andrew Logan.
The study lays out options to fix the shortfalls in disability funding, from raising taxes to cutting benefits.
The growing hostile rhetoric on the right has alarmed some. Bud Meyers, a laid off casino bartender in Las Vegas, happened to catch O'Reilly's rant. He said he thinks there is no way millions people are leaving their jobs to collect disability payments. Meyers spent more than two years unemployed before he tried to get on disability. (Meyers, who uses a pseudonym, spends some of his time blogging.)
"I was laid off in October 2008. My unemployment benefits ran out in June 2010. My savings ran out by January 2011," Meyers, 56, wrote in an email. He said he applied for disability as soon as his savings ran out.
Meyers said his bartending career has left him with arthritis in his neck and back, and that he couldn't possibly stand and work for eight hours straight like he used to. The Social Security Administration, Meyers said, was not convinced he couldn't find something to do. He applied for disability a second time, unsuccessfully.
"I've already received the 'mandatory' two written rejections on my disability claim from the Social Security office and I'm still waiting for a hearing," Meyers wrote. "[More than three million] people left their jobs to take a chance of going on the government dole for half their previous salary with no income in between? I don't think so! Multi-millionaires like Bill O'Reilly have no clue at all."