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Friday, 23 December 2011 13:37

The Geography of Disability

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geography-1By Bill Bishop and Roberto Gallardo

The Social Security disability system began in 1957 as a way to help people too sick to work. By 2009 more than 9.6 million Americans were counted as disabled. Rates of disability in rural America are 80 percent higher than in the cities.

More than one out of four working age adults (15 to 64) in Buchanan County, Virginia, was receiving disability payments from Social Security in 2009.


There were nearly 16,000 working age adults in Buchanan, a coal mining county nudged up next to Kentucky and West Virginia. Just over 4,400 were disabled. (To see a chart with the 50 U.S. counties with the largest percentages of disabled working age adults, jump to the next page.)

There were nearly 9.5 million Americans in 2009 who received Social Security disability payments. To qualify, they had to show that they couldn’t work due to a disability and that the disability is expected to last for at least a year. Disability benefits go to people with persistent physical or mental problems, such as cancer, chronic back pain, persistent anxiety and schizophrenia.

The distribution of the disabled is quite unequal, as the map on the next page shows.


While the coal mining region of the Appalachian mountains has a score of counties with more than ten percent of the adult population qualifying for disability payments for Social Security, in other counties, only one to two percent of residents qualify as disabled. In Washington, D.C. — where Social Security is at the center of a national debate on federal spending — only 3.2 percent of adults rely on these kinds of benefits.

There are distinct pockets of high disability rates among working age adults in Alabama and Mississippi, in Maine and in the Ozarks. These are the dark purple areas on the map, where more than 10 percent of the working age population receives a Social Security disability check.

Dark green areas have the lowest levels of disability, under 3.5 percent of the adult population in 2009.

(Click on the map to see a larger version.)

Rural areas are more dependent on disability benefits than are metropolitan areas. Nationally, 4.6 percent of adults received disability benefits through Social Security. In rural America, 7.6 percent of adults receive these payments. In counties with small cities (between 10,000 and 50,000), 6.5 percent of adults qualify.

In metropolitan counties, however, the disability rate among adults is 4.2 percent in 2009.


The rates of disability also vary widely by state. The chart below lists the states (and Washington, D.C.) in descending order of disability rates. West Virginia had the highest percentage of working age adults qualified for disability in 2009, 9.6 percent.

In Utah, only 2.8 percent of adults received a disability check in 2009 — only a third of the rate found in West Virginia, Arkansas and Kentucky.

Here are the 50 states and the District of Columbia ranked according to the percent of their working age populations receiving Social Security disability payments.


The Social Security disability program started in 1957 as a way to help people who can’t work because of health problems. There has been a surge of applicants to the program over the last decade. There were 6.6 million beneficiaries in 2000. By 2009, there were 9.6 million.

The average monthly benefit in 2009 was $1,064.

Currently, the disability fund is kept separate from retirement benefits and has a much smaller cushion of reserves.

Disability payments are concentrated in counties where the jobs require manual labor and where unemployment is traditionally high. Mining and timbering are major industries in many of the counties with the highest percentages of disability beneficiaries. These are also counties with historically high rates of unemployment.

Below is a list of the 50 counties in the country with the highest percentages of working age adults receiving Social Security disability benefits in 2009. Only three of the 50 are urban counties. Five contain small cities. The other 42 of the top 50 are rural.


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Read 51197 times Last modified on Wednesday, 17 June 2015 05:18


  • Comment Link victoria johnson Thursday, 31 July 2014 03:22 posted by victoria johnson

    Hey Tom recently I was diagnosed with severe COPD and issues w/ my heart. I had little in 401,yet took some out to pay car and highest interest rate credit card off, which freed up some money. I'm going to attempt to move from my home, into a senior/ disability building or housing. They only require 30% of your income for rent and usually the utilities are included. I pray somebody will buy my house - my neighborhood isn't as great as when I moved in! And I don't want to be a landlord. With your amt., you should be eligible for food stamps! That's not a pride thing it's a need thing and it's our tax money that funds it. I hope some or all of this is helpful. God Bless

  • Comment Link Tom Erley Wednesday, 23 July 2014 13:17 posted by Tom Erley

    I have an artificial L. elbow and my R. wrist has been removed and fused. My lumbar region has severe stenosis from same accident, 20 yrs. ago. SSDI is 900 a mo.. No place will hire me because I've been on disability! I can't survive on what I'm getting and I would rather work. Any impute from anyone is welcome.

  • Comment Link Mariana Tuesday, 11 February 2014 21:23 posted by Mariana

    Uhg i suffer from ulcerative colitis inflammatory and its painful, like i cant sleep , i cant eat right, i cant work, and just cry about the pain and other symptoms like severe nausea . Ive so frustrated and cry so much because the pain wont go away noteven with medication. I feel like im going crazy! I never experienced something so painful and mich more in my entire life , i honestly so tired of it the i just want to die. Worst time of my life :'(

  • Comment Link eddie capuano Tuesday, 31 January 2012 23:29 posted by eddie capuano

    Where can I apply for tax discounts since I am disbaled?

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