HARRISBURG - The number of people in Pennsylvania getting monthly disability benefits through Social Security is growing at an alarming rate.
Social Security Administration data show more than 390,000 Pennsylvanians qualified for disability payments in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.
That figure represents a 50 percent increase since 2003, well above the national average of 39 percent growth during the same time.
If all of those beneficiaries lived in the same place they would comprise the state's second largest city trailing only Philadelphia and beating Pittsburgh by more than 80,000 residents.
Nationally, the number of recipients getting disability payments through Social Security has more than tripled since 1970, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the increases have been sharper in recent years.
More women entering the workforce has been a contributing factor, as is a change 20 years ago that allowed children of disabled workers to qualify for benefits.
"Claims have changed over the years to simply include more people and therefore more need to explore all requirements as they relate to different audiences and situations," said Sara Goulet, press secretary for the state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees the Bureau of Disability Determination in Pennsylvania.
That bureau is responsible for determining who qualifies for Social Security benefits, but calls to the bureau were redirected to the department's press office.
According to the bureau's website, it processes more than 145,000 cases each year in Pennsylvania.
W. Daniel Feehan, an attorney who handles Social Security disability claims at the Montgomery County law firm of Lowenthal and Abrams, said up to 70 percent of applications for disability benefits are rejected, at first. It can take up to a year for an appeal to work its way through the system and come before a judge, which is how most beneficiaries qualify.
On top of evidence of a disabling medical condition, qualification for benefits is also based age, education level and work history, Feehan said.
That means older workers with low levels of education and long careers in physically demanding jobs are more likely to qualify, but Feehan said he has seen an uptick in the number of younger workers seeking benefits.
Other research also shows the aging population is not entirely - or even primarily - responsible for the growth in disability benefits.
The aging of the U.S. population accounts for only 13 percent of the growth in disability payments to men - only 4 percent of the growth in payments to women - according to Mark Duggan and Scott Imberman of the National Bureau for Economic Research.
In a paper published in 2009, Duggan and Imberman determined that the biggest cost-driver of disability payments was not increasing age but the relaxation of medical eligibility requirements.
An individual in Pennsylvania who qualifies for Social Security disability payments will receive a base monthly benefit of $720. Beneficiaries with spouses, children or other dependents can qualify for as much as $1,300 each month.
But with the number of beneficiaries growing, the disability program rings up a sizeable tab. Last year, Social Security paid more than $3 billion in benefits to retired and disabled Pennsylvania workers.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, outlays for Social Security totaled $800 billion during fiscal 2012, a total that accounts for one-fifth of all federal spending.
Of the 56 million people who receive Social Security benefits, about 70 percent are retired workers or their spouses and children, and another 11 percent are survivors of deceased workers. The remaining 19 percent of beneficiaries - more than 10.6 million Americans in 2012 - are disabled workers or their spouses and children. And because of benefit increases over the past 40 years, the cost of the program has increased seven-fold, from $18 billion in 1970 to $124 billion in 2010.
But the disability trust fund is essentially going broke. The CBO estimates the fund will be exhausted by 2018, unless changes are made.
"Without legislative action to reduce the DI programs outlays, increase its dedicated federal revenues, or transfer other federal funds to it, the Social Security Administration will not have the legal authority to pay full DI benefits beyond that point," the CBO concluded in a 2010 analysis of the fund.
Eric Boehm can be reached at Eric@PAIndependent.com and follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.