climb over the next decade, albeit less sharply than in the past decade. The
expanding rolls have drawn scrutiny from policy analysts.
"Some have argued that the programs have become relatively more attractive to low-wage individuals and those with moderate disabilities, especially during economic downturns," economist Jeffrey Hemmeter wrote in a study this year for the Office of Retirement and Disability Policy.
Nearly two in five workers in New Jersey receiving disability benefits do so because of a mental disorder such as schizophrenia or depression. One in four disabled workers can't work because of musculo-skeletal injuries or connective-tissue damage such as a bad back or torn shoulder.
Disability fraud makes easy headlines. For example, a North Carolina postal worker who claimed that pain kept her from reaching or lifting was convicted of fraud this year after riding a zipline on a Caribbean cruise and spinning the Big Wheel on "The Price is Right."
The Office of Inspector General cracked down on Social Security fraud in October, launching the first of 3,963 investigations that led to the arrest of 275 people nationwide and $170 million in savings.
One possibility for funding disability benefits beyond 2016 would be to siphon money from the larger Old Age and Survivors trust fund that the Social Security Administration pays retirees. The funds combined could last until at least 2033.
Experts say there are several reasons more Americans are seeking disability benefits.
Some states are leading efforts to shrink their state-funded welfare rolls by pushing welfare recipients onto federally funded disability programs.
Some point to the downturn in the economy, which drives unemployed workers who can't find jobs to seek alternatives such as public support. Social Security approves about 1 in 3 applications for federal disability. Injured or disabled workers sometimes must apply multiple times before receiving approval.
Since the recession in 2007, the agency has approved nearly 1 million new applicants each year.
Werner said more disabled workers in New Jersey are eligible for public benefits because of lost salary from downsizing, layoffs and other cutbacks from the recession. Disabled workers who work generally receive less in public benefits on a sliding scale that reflects their income.
The Congressional Budget Office found that while economic downturns historically boost applications for disabled benefits, they do not necessarily lead to more claims being granted.
But Kathy Ruffing, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank in Washington, said there is a much less nefarious reason behind America's increasing disability enrollment. The American work force is getting older, working longer and is subject to more disability-related issues.
"The important message is that most growth in the program stems from demographics. Some of the growth stems from the economic downturn. None of it has been shown to come from program abuse," she said.
Disabled workers face hurdles such as transportation that present a challenge for much of the rest of the work force in South Jersey.
Cape May County's Fare-Free Transportation program gives some disabled workers transportation to and from their jobs. The program provided 168,892 trips in 2012 for its disabled, impoverished or elderly clients.
"Given the logistics of the county's geography, transportation is a huge barrier, which is why they rely on us so heavily," said director Lisa Damico, of Lower Township. "We try to help people as much as we can."
Damico said it is not always easy for disabled workers to get a ride from a friend or family member.
"The average person might have access to a vehicle but not to wheelchair loaders. They don't always have a way to move handicapped accessories," she said.
Like many other social-service programs, Fare Free is facing the prospect of funding cuts from the state grants upon which it relies. Damico said the program is looking at alternatives to raise money, including billboard advertising on its buses and seeking reimbursement of certain costs through Medicare.
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