The 17% Employment Rate No One is Talking About

Did you know that we have a second Texas? If you didn’t, it’s not your fault. We don’t talk about it all that much. Unlike the Texas everyone’s familiar with, this one isn’t located in any one geographic location. Rather, it’s scattered throughout the United States. You probably know someone from the second Texas. Here’s the thing: Because we hardly ever talk about it, hardly anyone knows that only 17% of it is employed, compared to 59% (according to the American Communities Survey 2011) in the Texas most people think of.

However, most people in this Texas want to work. Of the other 83%, fully 80% want to work at least part-time and contribute to our society. This population is our nation’s disabled, and it is truly our country’s most underused economic resource. 

Our disabled population makes up a large share of the total population – about one-fifth, according to some estimates. Saying that our disabled population is roughly the first Texas’ size is a very conservative estimate. The Census says that it’s actually both a second Texas and a second New York combined, all with that dismal 17% employment rate.

If counted on its own, Texas would have the 15th largest economy in the world based on 2011 data. New York would have the 16th largest. Together, the two states would be ninth, right under Italy and above Russia. Imagine what our second New York and Texas could be if they were employed at the same rate as everyone else. So why aren’t they working and contributing? 

Are they just lazy bums? No. We’ve already gone through the 80% figure. People with disabilities generally want to be working and contributing. They resent enormously the fraudsters who try to steal from our government by taking advantage of our disability system. Look at Representative Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), for just one example. Although they tend to prefer a strong safety net, most don’t want to rely on it. That’s even truer for the rising millennial generation who grew up being told that even if they have a disability, they can still make something of themselves if they work hard at it. Because of that, many are even more ambitious than past generations and determined to do just that. Daniel Radcliffe, the star of the Harry Potter movies who has discussed his dyspraxia in the past, is a good example of what this generation’s disabled can offer.

Well, they probably can’t do the work, right? Or maybe they’re way too expensive? Heck no! You don’t have to look too far to find stories of people with disabilities not just contributing to the workplace, but doing a better job than the competition would have. A 2010 Harris poll of employers shows that 62% said that it costs about the same to hire someone with a disability as someone without. That same poll showed clear majorities of employers thought that you would get the same sort of dedication, flexibility, ability to acquire new skills, and lack of turnover and absenteeism with someone with a disability as someone without. What’s more, a good third actually felt that they get even more dedication to the job from someone with a disability than someone without. 

Some companies have already realized this. Walgreen’s has actively recruited people with disabilities after realizing that the turnover rate was 48% less for people with disabilities, and productivity was about equal to those without disabilities. SAP, a German tech firm, is now looking to recruit people with autism and Aspergers Syndrome to work on programming and product testing after figuring out that they can often be more detail-oriented and thorough in such tasks than most other people.

Disqualifying 20% of our population from even trying to achieve its goals is not fair. It is also not sustainable. Social Security’s disability trust fund is slated to go bankrupt by 2016. Payments to Americans with disabilities cost taxpayers approximately $450 billion a year. Even just cutting that in half would save $225 billion a year, not even counting the amount the government would bring in from new revenue from the new taxpayers. To contrast, the Senate farm bill would cost $95.5 billion per year ($955 billion per decade). It could be paid for twice by moving people from disability to work.

Another reason to focus on this issue is our aging population, according to Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, CEO of the disability rights organization RespectAbility USA. “As Boomers age, there won't be very many young people working and paying into the system. It is hard to imagine now, when there is high unemployment, but the America of the future will need more workers. Will we recruit millions of foreigners to fill those jobs? Or will we wake up and see that we can make America stronger by using the talents of the 10 million working-age Americans with disabilities who also have abilities? After all, they can contribute their skills, are already here, speak English, live in our communities, and are related to us. America will be stronger when we welcome all those amongst us to participate in the economy and achieve the American dream.”

People with disabilities are increasingly energized and determined to make a difference in this world. They want to stop being tax takers and start being taxpayers. The only thing they need is the opportunity to do so. 

Lauren Gilbert is an volunteer fellow with RespectAbility USA, an organization that seeks to increase employment among people with disabilities.