WI23-16: The Effects of Automation Technologies on SSDI Applications and Awards



The number of SSDI awards rose steadily from the early-1980s until 2010, when the trend reversed course. The decline in SSDI awards starting in 2010 and continuing through 2020 is a puzzle yet to be resolved. Various hypotheses have been put forward, including changes in economic conditions, the shift of Baby Boomers out of the disability-prone years to retirement, health insurance availability, earnings inequality, claim processing changes, and lack of program information.

In an effort to explain the reversal in SSDI awards, we put forward a new hypothesis: After accounting for population aging, which increases both SSDI uptake and the adoption of automation technologies, SSDI rolls are negatively related to robotics and other automation technologies. The causal pathway between SSDI and automation is two-pronged. First, automation generally replaces more physically-intensive and dangerous tasks. Second, automation can create new tasks amenable to older and less physically able workers.

We will use SSDI application/award counts aggregated to the commuting zone-year level, data from the International Federation of Robotics, and data on the extent of automation from O*NET to study the impact of labor-saving technologies on SSDI outcomes. Understanding how automation technologies affect SSDI outcomes and alter the nature of work is important for SSA’s ability to forecast program solvency and matching displaced workers to jobs.

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