Public Policies and Vulnerable Populations: In the Growth Years of the 1990s, When the Employment Rates Rose for Most Working-Age Americans, Economic Prosperity Was Not Shared by People with Disabilities. in Fact, People with Disabilities Experienced an Unprecedented Decline in Economic Independence

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Between 1992 and 2000, the employment rates of men with disabilities fell by 23 percent, and for women with disabilities, they fell by 5 percent. These statistics are based on studies conducted by the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center for Economic Research on Employment Policy for Persons with Disabilities. Economist Richard Burkhauser, the center's co-principal investigator, and Sarah Gibson, Blanding Professor of Policy Analysis at Cornell, explains the data clearly show that current public policies, although well intentioned, are not pro-work policies for people with disabilities.


As social scientists, Burkhauser and his colleagues in the center are responsible for producing objective information upon which evidence-based policy can be formulated. Burkhauser, who also serves as chair of the Department of Policy Analysis and Management, works with two co-principal investigators--Susanne M. Bruyere, director of the Program on Employment and Disability in the Extension Division of Cornell's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, and David Stapleton, director of the Cornell University Institute for Policy Research. They invested three years examining existing data sets to ascertain that the downward trend in employment is real and not a statistical artifact.

It was this need to determine the quality of existing data on people with disabilities that spurred Burkhauser, to establish, with Bruyere and Stapleton, the Rehabilitation Research and Training Center when he first came to Cornell six years ago. The center is a collaborative initiative with the Program on Employment and Disability, the Cornell Institute for Policy Research, the Lewin Group, the Urban Institute, and the Department of Policy Analysis and Management in the College of Human Ecology. It is funded by the U.S. Department of Education's National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.

The center's first major findings appear in The Decline in Employment of People with Disabilities: A Policy Puzzle, co-edited by Stapleton and Burkhauser. "This is not simply an academic book for scholars in the field; it is meant to explain in a broad way the policy puzzle of why the employment of people with disabilities has fallen," says Burkhauser.

In the wake of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996, a major shift occurred from welfare to work for single women with children, while the opposite was true for people with disabilities. In a recent paper titled "The Stunning Contrast between the Employment of Single Mothers and People with Disabilities in the 1990s," Burkhauser and Stapleton examine the policies that have brought two unexpected and opposite results.

The transition of single women with children off public assistance and into employment over the last decade has surprised even leading policy researchers, Burkhauser explains. Experts on the federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children Program failed to predict this success. One cause was a coordinated change in incentives, all of which encouraged work--either with the "carrot" of work-based benefits or the "stick" of limits on nonwork benefits. But the success can be credited most especially to the dramatic expansion of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a wage subsidy that makes work pay for individuals with low skills. The EITC is a critical factor in increasing the household income for most single mothers with children and, according to Burkhauser, is a perfect example of a federal government policy that can change people's behavior.

In contrast, social policy consistent with the intellectual underpinnings of the ADA was not put into place. "The ADA recognized that the most promising path to economic independence is through market work and that the social environment is a more powerful factor in determining employment outcomes than is an individual's impairment," Burkhauser says. …