Social Security field offices were closed to visitors from March 2020 to April, which the Social Security Administration said led to a drop in disability claims. So some of what we’re seeing is just catch-up. But there’s something else that could play a role as well: the lingering effects of Covid-19, aka Long Covid, infections.
Given that one must be unable to work for at least 12 months to qualify for Social Security disability, and completing the program is a critical step that effectively requires leaving the workforce, the still new phenomenon that Is Long Covid probably doesn’t play a big role (the Social Security Administration said only about 1% of recent requests mention Covid). Still, the turnaround in disability claims is at least not inconsistent with an increase in long-term illness-related health problems – and it turns out there are stronger signs of Long Covid in d other job-related data.
I started looking for them partly because I doubted some of the direct estimates of the magnitude of the phenomenon. With blood tests showing 58% of Americans infected with Covid-19 through February, studies revealing that 10% or 25% or 30% or 37% or 55% of people with the disease develop long-term symptoms imply that 20 million to 100 million of us have Long Covid. An attempt in April by the advocacy group Solve Long Covid Initiative to narrow that down to “disabling” cases still put the range between 7 and 14 million, or 2.3% to 4.4% of American adults.
Given that labor force participation and employment rates in May were only about half a percentage point lower than they were before the pandemic for prime-aged adults ( those aged 25-54) and above pre-pandemic levels for those aged 55-64, these estimates appear high. Yet dig a little deeper into the current monthly population survey from which these statistics are derived and it’s clear that something new is affecting millions of Americans, though many are staying at work despite it.
The Census Bureau, which conducts the CPS of 60,000 households on behalf of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, asks about disabilities as well as employment. The resulting estimate of the number of Americans 16 and older with disabilities has increased by about two million since the start of 2020. It had increased over the previous decade as the population aged, but not at a rate pace so fast.
These two million additional Americans with disabilities are split almost evenly between those who are in the labor force (i.e. employed or actively seeking employment) and those who are not. part. Since this latter group constitutes the vast majority of people with disabilities, the increase in disability among the working population has been much greater in percentage terms.
This drop in disability in the spring of 2020 was probably not real: survey response rates plummeted in the early months of the pandemic, with low-income households seeing the biggest drop, skewing the results. What has happened since the spring of 2021, however, appears to be driven by real changes in health status. More than one million more Americans, a 19% increase from before the pandemic, are complaining of a disability while continuing to work.
What do they have ? The six questions asked by Census Bureau investigators to determine disability are:
• Does anybody [in your household] deaf or does anyone have serious difficulty hearing?
• Is anyone blind or have serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses?
• Due to a physical, mental or emotional condition, does anyone have serious difficulty concentrating, remembering or making decisions?
• Does anyone have serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs?
• Does anyone have difficulty getting dressed or taking a bath?
• Due to a physical, mental or emotional condition, does anyone have difficulty doing errands on their own, such as going to the doctor or shopping?
If the answer to one or more of these questions is yes, the person is considered disabled. Here’s how the answers have changed during the pandemic:
Having trouble concentrating, remembering, or making decisions (I removed that last item from the chart to make it more readable) fits well with the common Long Covid symptom known as “brain fog.” Fatigue and difficulty breathing, two other main symptoms of Long Covid, are less directly addressed by disability questions, although they can translate into difficulty running errands on their own and walking or climbing stairs . Hearing problems such as tinnitus have also been linked to Covid, although they are not high on the list of persistent symptoms.
The craziness of the past two years is another possible cause for all that brain fog, as well as the kind of anxiety that might get in the way of venturing out to run errands. But another survey the Census Bureau began conducting early in the pandemic points to a Covid connection.
Since January 2021, the online Household Pulse Survey includes a question about past Covid-19 diagnoses, and since April 2021, it includes questions similar to the first four disability queries in the CPS, but with additional multiple-choice answers rather than yes-no. The percentage of respondents reporting serious memory or concentration problems rose both among those who definitely have had Covid and those who probably don’t, but it’s higher and the rise was steeper among the former band.
Based on Household Pulse responses, the Census Bureau estimated that during the survey period from April 27 to May 9 of this year, 5.1 million Americans age 18 and older had (1 ) a previous diagnosis of Covid-19 and (2) serious illness. difficulty remembering or concentrating. Many of these memory and concentration issues likely predate Covid, and large changes in response rates over time make it difficult to compare estimates from the most recent Household Pulse surveys with those from spring 2021. But my estimate at the bottom of the envelope (1) according to results from Household Pulse, about 2.2 million more American adults are complaining of severe brain fog-like problems now than in the spring of 2021. The estimate based on the CPS, recorded in the table above, is that there are 1.2 million more than before the pandemic.
Neither are 20 million, or even seven million, but that’s a lot of people and their numbers could continue to grow. This tally may also miss many people with fatigue, breathing or other Long Covid complaints that are not so well captured by surveys. Neither the Household Pulse survey nor the CPS – including the set of pandemic-related questions added to it in May 2020 – address Long Covid much more directly than that. Even the Working Arrangements and Attitudes Survey organized by economists Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom and Steven J. Davis, which focused on some important Covid-related topics that government surveys have not, has so far avoided health questions for fear that, as Bloom said in an email, they were “perhaps too sensitive to be included in the survey”.
Barrero, Bloom and Davis recently concluded that what they called “long social distancing,” driven in part by concerns about catching Covid-19, is lowering participation in the U.S. workforce. of 16 and over by about 2.5 percentage points, which totals more than six million people. The Long Covid effect is likely smaller than that: In a January Brookings Institution report, jobs expert (and pizza company executive) Katie Bach estimated, based on multiple studies, that it cost the US labor market about 1.6 million full-time equivalents. workers, which seems to be along the same lines as what I found. That’s still enough to make an impact, especially in a time when there are more jobs available than people looking for them – as Bach said, that equates to about 15% of all unfilled jobs in the United States. United.
And discussing this only in terms of impact on employment and labor market participation is probably a mistake. My reading of the disability data is that the majority of people with Long Covid-like symptoms are still working, and I would imagine that even most of those with debilitating cases would prefer not to leave the workforce for good.
However, there seem to be plenty of people with Long Covid who might need help. Which brings me back to Social Security disability insurance, a program that has long been criticized for disconnecting recipients from the labor market. In 2010, economists David Autor and Mark Duggan proposed a new approach that would provide:
• workplace accommodations, rehabilitation services, partial income support and other services to workers with work limitations, with the aim of enabling them to retain their employment;
• financial incentives for employers to accommodate workers who become disabled and minimize the movement of workers from their payrolls to the SSDI system
With the encouragement of Congress, the Social Security Administration has undertaken experiments along these lines. Long Covid seems like a good reason to speed up the process.
More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:
The Covid era has more diabetes and brain fog: Raphaël and Fazeli
Good jobs don’t need expensive college degrees anymore: Conor Sen
Covid-19 public health advice is anyone’s guess: Faye Flam
(1) The average share of respondents who reported severe memory or concentration difficulties was 5.86% in the first two Household Pulse surveys that asked the question in April and May 2021 and 6.74% in the two more recent, so I multiplied the 0.88-percentage-point increase by Household Pulse’s 18-plus population estimate of 252 million to get 2.2 million.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Justin Fox is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering business. Former editorial director of Harvard Business Review, he has written for Time, Fortune and American Banker. He is the author of “The Myth of the Rational Market”.
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