David Autor is an MIT economist who has done research on the Social Security disability programs. His basic beliefs seem to be that the existence of Social Security disability benefits is a bad thing because if it did not exist some people who are now drawing these benefits would still be working. At the least, he thinks it is too easy to get Social Security disability benefits and that this takes people out of the workforce unnecessarily. I have recently been critical of Autor because it appears to me that he has not taken the time to study the statutes and regulations and policies defining disability and encouraging return to work. Instead, he has just made his own mistaken assumptions about what must these must say. Autor seems far more comfortable with mathematical equations than with the U.S. Code and the Code of Federal Regulations, much less with the flesh and blood people who apply for Social Security disability benefits.
Autor is the lead researcher on a new study titled Does Delay Cause Decay? The Effect of Administrative Decision Time on the Labor Force Participation and Earnings of Disability Applicants. Autor and his colleagues go to a lot of trouble to try to prove that the existence of time-consuming appeals mechanisms at Social Security discourage return to work. In the end, by making a lot of possibly questionable assumptions and extrapolations, Autor and his colleagues come to the conclusion that there is some minor decrease in work as a result of the appears process, 3.6% for denied applicants and 5.2% for allowed applicants. And to that, I give a big yawn. I don't doubt that there is some small, fairly meaningless decrease in return to work but I have no idea how we avoid it without doing vast injustice to disabled people.
However, Autor does not seem to note he has collected data that dramatically undermines his thesis that it is too easy to get on Social Security disability benefits. Below are his numbers from table 1 on page 25 of the report (page 29 of the PDF) concerning return to work by those who apply for Social Security disability benefits and who are then either denied or approved, either initially or after appeals:
If it is so easy to get on Social Security disability benefits, why is it that such a low percentage of denied applicants go back to work? According to Autor's theory many of those approved should be working but it turns out that even the vast majority of those denied don't go back to work. Four years after being denied at the initial level, 85% are still out of work and Autor thinks it's too easy to get Social Security disability benefits! Yes, if you hold an economic gun to the heads of people who apply for Social Security disability benefits, a few will go back to work but the vast majority don't. Doesn't that mean something? Shouldn't that also be worthy of Autor's attention?