Sunday, January 29, 2012

In Missouri and Kansas, rural communities have strongest reliance on disability benefits

Intro to the story in the Kansas City Star. Pictured is Becky Noland, who has muscular dystrophy, has been collecting Social Security disability benefits for years. Her fiance, John Hale, has been trying to get benefits for years, but hasn’t succeeded. They live in Lincoln, Mo.

WARSAW, Mo. -- Around this rural county seat 100 miles southeast of Kansas City, 1 out of every 8 people of working age is home collecting disability checks from the Social Security Administration.

That compares to about 1 in 20 for the Kansas City area — which may sound low, but it’s climbing here, too.

Everywhere, Americans below retirement age are surviving on Social Security disability benefits and, with baby boomers aging in a slow economy, applications are exploding. Each year since the onset of the recession, more than 400,000 have been joining the system’s disability rolls, where they collect a monthly average of about $1,000.

But where are they most apt to collect it? A recent tabulation of data nationwide reveals the highest concentrations of communities subsisting on disability benefits, per capita, to be in historically poor, rural settings.

They’re often places where two-lane highways wind around wooded hills, where mining or manual farm labor once put food on the table, and access to medical care has long been limited.

Poverty begets bad health and greater rates of disability, experts say, and disabilities often lead to deeper poverty.

In Benton County, Mo., where city folk enjoy camping and shopping for antiques around Truman Lake, Becky Noland, 32, lives on little more than the $716 monthly allotment that Social Security provides. Both of her parents collect disability, and a fiancé is trying to after three back operations plus a stroke that weakened his right side.

Noland said she knows people who game the system. One bought a motorcycle with disability benefits awarded on a claim of being legally blind, she said.

“That makes me angry,” Noland said from her wheelchair. Muscular dystrophy has withered her legs and curled her fingers.

The maladies afflicting some of her countryside neighbors are far less visible — back pain, mood disorders, heart issues, the whole range of physical and emotional side effects from serving in Vietnam or the more recent theaters of war.

Not all of this region’s disabled grew up here. Many moved in from the cities because life is more affordable in a mobile home outside Warsaw or at an RV park lakeside.

In four contiguous west-central Missouri counties — Benton, Hickory, St. Clair and Morgan — the unemployment rate ranges between 9 percent and 12 percent. Add to those jobless rolls the 10 percent to 13 percent of residents between ages 15 and 64 collecting Social Security disability checks.

That’s according to an analysis of 2009 data by Mississippi State University researcher Roberto Gallardo and the nonprofit Center for Rural Strategies.

The per-capita rates of disability beneficiaries were higher yet in the Missouri Bootheel and rural parts of Alabama, Arkansas and the Appalachians. The website Daily Yonder reported that Buchanan County, Va., led the nation with 27 percent of working-age people on federal disability benefits in 2009.

The national average for working age but disabled?

It’s calculated at 4.6 percent, up from about 2.5 percent of the nonelderly adult population in the mid-1980s.

“You find higher rates in counties historically reliant on extraction industries — mining, agriculture, forestry,” said Tim Marema of the Center for Rural Strategies.

Where the mining has vanished, as in parts of west-central Missouri, generations of workers have been afflicted by struggling economies, low-paying jobs, poor access to health care and long, hilly drives to the nearest hospital.

Other experts say an array of factors — including the erratic, subjective system for determining who gets benefits and why — might figure into one community’s high reliance on disability income versus another’s low reliance.

In several rural and economically stressed counties in the Kansas outback, for example, the share of beneficiaries was calculated to be well below the national norm.