Swollen Ranks of Disabled Workers Highlights Need for Policy Reform


27/02/2003 - Many of the people receiving disability benefits are capable of working and want to work, but are discouraged from finding jobs because of faulty government policies, concludes a new OECD report.

The authors of the report, Transforming Disability into Ability: Policies to Promote Work and Income Security for Disabled People, propose a series of reforms to make disability programmes promote employment. The proposals aim to help individuals return to work and re-integrate into society. They include such steps as offering incentives to employers and providing job-search help to disabled individuals.

The need for reform is clear. OECD countries spend at least twice as much on disability-related programmes as they spend on unemployment programmes. Disability benefits on average account for more than 10 percent of total social spending. In the Netherlands, Norway and Poland they reach as much as 20 percent of social expenditure.

Recently completed OECD research on disability policies in 20 member countries found that none of them has a particularly successful policy for disabled people. In spite of high spending levels, disability rates remain stubbornly high. In most countries, people who enter disability-related programmes remain beneficiaries until retirement. On average, only 1% of benefit recipients find a job each year.

Some of the individual country results were startling:

  • In the Netherlands, the proportion of young women between the ages of 20 and 35 who receive disability benefits is three times higher than for their male counterparts.
  • In Austria, persons over 55 years are more frequently on disability benefits than in any other country, while rates for Austrians under age 50 are much lower than elsewhere.
  • In Norway, disability benefit rates are much higher, but unemployment benefit rates are much lower than elsewhere. Norway spends more than 5.5 percent of GDP on disability-related programmes - more than 12 times the amount spent on unemployment.

Country-by-country comparisons of disability systems can be difficult, since some are managed by central agencies, while others are managed by many levels of government. However, the study suggests that the ways in which disability is defined and assessed, and the ways in which benefits are awarded, have a strong impact on the numbers of people on benefit rolls. Countries with generous benefits, and where many people have access to them, tend to have higher disability rates.

Ease of access to other benefit programmes also plays a role. In the United States and the United Kingdom, disability benefits became more heavily used when entry to unemployment or early retirement benefits were restricted. In many countries, disability awards are concentrated among people over age 50, reflecting a tendency to park unemployed workers in disability programmes until they reach retirement age.

Some of the policy reforms recommended by the report's authors are:

  • Design individual benefit packages to include rehabilitation and vocational training, job search support, benefits, and the possibility of different forms of employment.
  • Introduce new obligations for disabled people, including a requirement to look for work, for those who are capable.
  • Involve employers, encouraging them to help disabled employees continue to work, or offering them incentives to hire disabled individuals.
  • Make cash benefits flexible, depending on job capabilities and changes in an individual's disability over time.

A policy brief on the report is available on the OECD website. Journalists who wish to receive a copy of the complete report are invited to contact the Media Relations Division. For more information about the report, journalists are invited to contact Christopher Prinz (tel: [33]1 45 24 94 83) or Monika Queisser (tel: [33] 1 45 24 96 34) in the OECD Social Policy Division.

Subscribers and readers at subscribing institutions can access the study via SourceOECD our online library. Non-subscribers will be able to purchase the study via our Online Bookshop.

See charts . For more information on social policy .

"Transforming Disability into Ability. Policies to Promote Work and Income Security for Disabled People", 220 pages, OECD, Paris 2003
Available in electronic format (pdf)
US$33; Euros 33
ISBN 92-64-19887-3 (81 03 02 1)


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