By Adam Gorlick
When Mark Duggan was pursuing his doctorate in economics during the late 1990s, the country was in good financial shape. The stock market was up, inflation was low and unemployment was dropping.
He thought America was in a golden age.
Then he came across some curious data showing enrollment in the Social Security Disability Insurance program was rapidly increasing.
“It didn’t make a lot of sense at first,” said Duggan, now the Trione Director of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research who recently testified to a congressional committee about SSDI’s troubled future. “It wasn’t that people were getting sicker, because the health of the overall adult population during that period was improving.”
The program was intended for older workers whose disabilities prevented them from doing their jobs. But Duggan suspected that younger people who couldn’t find a job were finding ways to go on disability.
When he dug a little deeper, he found that was exactly the case. A policy change in the mid-1980s made it easier for people with subjective medical conditions – such as back pain – to qualify for SSDI. And with that change came an uptick in enrollment that put the program on a path to where it’s now struggling to stay solvent.
Duggan’s early investigation pointed to another problem: there was hardly any academic research on the growth and economic impact of SSDI, which is the largest federal program to assist disabled workers.
So he committed much of his early academic work to understanding why SSDI was growing and what the effect of that growth was.
His research led to several journal publications, policy prescriptions and invitations to testify on Capitol Hill.
About 15 years after first puzzling over SSDI’s growing enrollment, he delivered his third presentation on the program to Congress on Nov. 4, before the Joint Economic Committee.
“Dr. Duggan is an advisor to many legislators and legislative staff – on both sides of the aisle – for understanding the challenges with Social Security Disability Insurance,” said Sen. Tom Cotton, a member of the JEC. “He brings deep expertise, innovative ideas, and has an ability to synthesize complex data down to what really matters."
Duggan’s research gave lawmakers evidence that appears to have led to the tightening of the program’s medical eligibility criteria and persuaded policymakers to implement early medical interventions aimed at keeping employees in the workforce longer.
“Our ideas have led to actual changes in the program and have spurred discussion of potential future reforms,” he said, referring to journal articles he’s co-authored with frequent collaborator David Autor, an economics professor at MIT.
“Many of our economic problems don’t lend themselves to superficial answers,” Duggan said. “Academics can hunker down, study a situation in depth and really get to the root causes. And that leads to the evidence that can be used to make thoughtful and important policy changes.”
Michael McAuliffe, a Washington, D.C.-based freelancer, contributed to this report.