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Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is intended to replace lost income for people suffering from a disability that is likely to cause substantial long-term losses in earnings. A concern has been that SSDI may have a disincentive effect on the willingness of recipients to work — that is, that some SSDI beneficiaries would work if they did not receive benefits. This study examined SSDI applications between 2005 and 2006, focusing on a "natural experiment" that arises from the disability determination process itself: Some of the disability examiners who decide these cases are more stringent than others. This allowed the study team to compare work activity among similar applicants who were initially allowed or denied benefits only because their applications were randomly assigned to disability examiners with different propensities to allow benefits. The researchers found that those who have impairments that are on the margin of allowance for SSDI benefits are strongly discouraged from returning to work if they are awarded benefits. They also found that those who are relatively less impaired are substantially more likely to return to work if denied benefits, whereas beneficiaries with the most severe impairments would not be any more likely to work if they had not received SSDI.

This issue of Insight summarizes research conducted within the RAND Center for Disability Research.

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