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University of Essex

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Disability and disadvantage over three decades

The number of disabled men and women claiming out-of- work benefits has been of great concern both to policy makers (worried about public expenditure) and to disabled people themselves (worried about poverty). There was a large increase in claims over the 1980s and early 1990s, and the numbers have remained stubbornly high since then, despite efforts by governments of all parties to reduce them. Politicians and the media have conducted a vocal campaign against claimants over the past year or so, accusing them of choosing benefits as a ‘lifestyle choice’, or even of being benefit cheats. Further policies to restrict entitlement are in train.

Benefit statistics tell us very little about the people who do not have jobs, and nothing at all about disabled people who do have jobs. In a series of papers supported by the Nuffield Foundation, Richard Berthoud, Morten Blekesaune and Lina Cardona Sosa have been analysing survey data to compare the employment rates of disabled people with those of otherwise similar people with no health problems.

The research helps to counter the idea that some disabled people are unequivocally capable of work, while others are wholly incapable. It supports instead the concept of disadvantage – a sliding scale of employment probabilities affected both by the nature and severity of people’s impairments, and by the willingness of employers to hire them. Most disabled people have combinations of health conditions and impairments which significantly reduce their probability of having a job, without eliminating it altogether. If a group of disabled people have only a 50:50 chance of working, how should policy treat the half of them who do not have a job: pay them long-term benefits on grounds of disability, or treat them as jobseekers and assume that they can find work?

It is commonly assumed that most of the changes in the prevalence of disability and in employment prospects have affected people with relatively minor impairments – but the research shows, on the contrary, that people with severely disadvantaging sets of health conditions have been more, not less, affected by the trends. Detailed analysis over 30 years suggests that changes in disabled peoples’ employment rates or in benefit payments have not coincided with major changes in the social security rules and procedures.

It has often been argued that the deindustrialisation and high rates of unemployment associated with the Thatcher government were responsible for the steep rise in the number of disabled people claiming benefit during the 1980s. It is true that disabled people are very sensitive to long-term geographical variations in the health of regional labour markets.

On the other hand, disabled people’s employment is hardly affected over time by booms or busts in the national economy. People without educational qualifications are more likely to be disabled, and their employment rates are more affected by disability, than (at the other extreme) people with degrees. Both of these tendencies have increased in intensity over time, so that the current generation of unqualified people has very high rates of disability, and the disabled members of the group have very low rates of employment. But the number of poorly educated people in Britain has been declining over the decades, so very little of the overall growth in the number of disabled people without work can be explained by the skills effect.

The fact that well-educated people are relatively less affected by disability helps to show that it is not disability, on its own, that determines outcomes, but the interaction between disability and opportunities. Disability nevertheless has a substantial effect across the spectrum.

It is possible that the main shift over the years has been at the boundary point between social convention and labour market activity. The same period witnessed a major positive shift in the economic identity of women with children – mothers have increasingly been seen as potential workers. It is possible that an opposite trend is affecting disabled people, who increasingly see themselves, and are seen by others, as permanently unable to work – in spite of the new emphasis on disability rights in public discourse. While employers have become more willing to recruit from the large pool of well- qualified women, they have become less motivated to hire or retain people who combine ill–health with low skill levels.

« Taking the long view