In a column on entitlements and the “subver[sion] of America’s old character,” George Will hauls out some oft-repeated data about the rise in Social Security disability insurance (DI) claims under Obama.

He says:

One reason work now is neither a duty nor a necessity is the gaming — defrauding, really — of disability entitlements. In 1960, an average of 455,000 workers were receiving disability payments; in 2011, 8.6 million were — more than four times the number of persons receiving basic welfare benefits under Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Nearly half of the 8.6 million were “disabled” because of “mood disorders” or ailments of the “musculoskeletal system and the connective tissue [i.e, back pain].”

There is little doubt that federal disability benefits have become a “hidden welfare program” (to the tune of $200 billion a year) during a historically lousy economy, as even liberal-leaning Slate has recognized:

Of course, many SSDI recipients are truly incapacitated. Others, however, are certainly employable in some fashion. All of them have had jobs at some point. And since the American workplace is demonstrably not more dangerous to life and limb than it was 30 or 40 years ago, it’s not immediately obvious why a large group of somewhat- or once-impaired people has more trouble getting and keeping jobs than their counterparts did in the recent past.

At first glance, Will’s comparison of current disability rolls to 1960 would seem loaded. After all, the workforce has a lot more aging baby boomers than it did in 1960. But research done by David Autor and Mark Duggan suggests that older workers account for only about six percent of the recent growth in the program. Another demographic factor — the rise of women in the workforce — has had a far great impact: “Whereas male disability receipt grew by 41 percent, female receipt grew by 151 percent, thus raising the ratio of female to male recipients from five females for every ten males in 1984 to eight females for every ten males in 2004.”

The underlying culprit may surprise hardened critics of the Obama administration: to wit, a liberalization of eligibility criteria that occurred during the Reagan administration. Autor and Duggan write that reforms in 1984 are what opened the door to a flood of back-pain and “mood disorder” claims.

This is not a new problem. Both parties’ fingerprints are on it. Disability claims have surged during the Great Recession — but they’ve been rising steadily for a generation. Will seems awfully naive to think that Mitt Romney’s embrace of “Paul Ryan’s emphasis on the entitlement state’s moral as well as financial costs” represents some kind of watershed moment. One reform that Autor and Duggan suggest is to, yes, empower the federal bureaucracy with more lawyers:

At present, claimants are typically represented at appeal by legal and medical advocates who have a financial stake in the claimant’s success. The Social Security Administration, by contrast, is entirely dependent on the Administrative Law Judge to protect the claimant’s and the public’s interests simultaneously. Permitting the Social Security Administration to provide a representative or attorney to the hearings would ameliorate this almost comically lopsided setting, in which the Social Security Administration currently loses nearly three-quarters of all appeals.

My guess is, as the economic crisis eases and job openings gradually become more plentiful, this problem will be swept back under the pre-recession rug.