Trends in Obesity Among Social Security Disability Applicants, 2007-2013

DRC Working Paper Number 2016-02
Publisher: Washington, DC: Center for Studying Disability Policy, Mathematica Policy Research
Feb 10, 2016
Authors
Jody Schimmel Hyde, Joseph Mastrianni, Yong Choi, and Jae Song

Key Findings: 

  • In general, initial disability applicants are much more likely than the working-age population to be obese (40.2 versus 28.8 percent in 2013), with that difference partly reflecting differences in other characteristics between the two groups. After controlling for age, sex, race, and education, the gap is approximately halved, but still substantial.
  • Obesity among disability applicants has risen steadily in recent years, from 37.4 percent in 2007 to 40.2 percent in 2013. This increase of 2.8 percentage points was higher than the 1.8 percent growth in obesity prevalence within the working-age population over the same period (from 27.0 to 28.8 percent). Obesity prevalence among initial applicants is highest among those with impairments affecting the musculoskeletal, endocrine, cardiovascular, and special/other body systems.
  • Obese applicants face higher levels of adjudication before receiving an allowance. Among initial determinations in 2013, there was no strong correlation between body system and obesity, although in many body systems, obese applicants had lower allowance rates than their non-obese peers. Among applications at the ALJ level in 2013, obese applicants were at least as likely, and often more likely, to receive an allowance than their non-obese counterparts. Further study following a cohort of applications through the full application process would be valuable to more fully assess the role of obesity in disability determinations.
Using self-reported height and weight data collected when working-age adults apply for federal disability benefits, we produce obesity prevalence statistics for working-age applicants to Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income from 2007 through 2013. We compare these statistics to those for the U.S. working-age population using nationally representative survey data from the same period, accounting for differences in other characteristics between applicants and the larger population. We find that, even after controlling for such differences, disability applicants are more likely than the general population to be obese, and obesity prevalence among applicants has been rising more rapidly than for their peers. We also assess how obesity may play a role in the disability determination process, considering differences in adjudication level, allowances by obesity status, and the body system most affected by impairments. We find that, compared with their non-obese peers, obese applicants often must face higher levels of adjudication before receiving a disability allowance.