Disability rate tied to poverty, low educational achievement

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Published: May 12,2003

Bad health, lack of education and poverty go hand in hand. Low education levels and poverty are two of the primary reasons why Mississippi leads the country in employment disability, tying with Nevada with a rate of 14.4% employment disability rate. The national average is 11.9%.

Dr. Barbara J. Logue, state demographer, says in 2000 one in every seven working-age Mississippians reported that health problems prevented them from holding down a job. In three counties — Noxubee, Panola and Tallahatchie — employment disability is more than 20% representing one in five people of working age. Eighteen counties have rates between 17% and 19.9%.

“Although these high-risk disability counties show no particular regional clustering, it is important to ask what they have in common,” Logue said. “A closer look at counties with the highest work disability prevalence is instructive: such counties uniformly show educational levels substantially lower than the state average. In Tallahatchie County, for example, only 54.5% of adults over age 25 have a high school diploma or GED, compared to the state average of 72.9%. Likewise, only 10.9% of Tallahatchie residents over age 25 have earned a bachelor’s or higher degree. The state average is 16.9%.”

If educational achievement is curtailed, it affects lifelong earnings. A person with a college degree, on average, earns $1 million more than non-graduates.

“Disabled people have lower educational attainment on average and that impacts their entire lives,” Logue said. “If their education is curtailed, that is going to affect their lifetime earnings and their ability to hold down a job. The effects of poor health on education begin early and last a lifetime. Disabilities present from birth and those that occur during childhood and adolescence, especially mental disabilities, tend to limit educational attainment. Chronic disability early in life limits educational attainment. In turn, educational deficits contribute to lifelong difficulties in getting good jobs and earning a good income.”

Mississippi has high rates of poverty, teen pregnancy and low-birth weight babies. Children born too soon are at risk for developmental problems.

“You start out with a handicap,” Logue said. “It seems to magnify over the life course. There is research looking at the average life expectancy at age 85. There is a difference in life expectancy even at age 85 depending on educational attainment. People with a college diploma have higher life expectancy. All the way through life educational attainment and health go hand in hand. If education is limited, then health is more poor.”

It is difficult for people with disabilities and low education levels to get and keep a job. Employment affects the ability to afford health care. Unemployed people might put off going to the doctor until it reaches a crisis state. And there is a spiral of impact down the family line.

“Your children benefit because you have a job, education and health insurance,” Logue said.

There are important ramifications to the state having such a high employment disability rate. The combination of more dependents and fewer workers makes it difficult to raise per capita income and reduces state tax collections that pay for education, social programs, infrastructure development and many other needs. Disabilities also place a burden on the health care system.

“To the extent that they prevent work entirely, employment disabilities limit the size of the state’s workforce,” Logue said. “Economic growth suffers when jobs go unfilled. When work-disabled people hold down a job, there may be effects on productivity that are impossible to measure. Disabled people who cannot work at all or who work only part time increase the state’s dependency burden, since those who do work must support those who do not.”

Royal T. Walker Jr., associate director, Institute for Disability Studies, University of Southern Mississippi, agrees that high disability rates can impact economic growth in the state. To help address the problem, the Institute for Disability Studies and other groups in the state work in partnership with employers to provide accommodations in the workplace that help disabled employees carry out essential job functions.

“Some of those strategies are very simple things that could be utilized in the workplace to provide accommodations,” Walker said. “It doesn’t mean you lower your expectations and productivity expectations for people with disabilities in the workplace. That is a misperception people have about people with disabilities. People with disabilities ought to be held accountable for carrying out essential job functions. We are not asking employees to lower standards. We ask employers to make accommodations in order that an employee can carry out their essential job function effectively and productively to achieve the standards they have outlined.”

Accommodations can be simple things like providing a flexible work schedule. And creative solutions can be quite inexpensive. For example, Walker knows an employer who was told that under the law he had to provide “reasonable accommodations” for disabled employees. The employer had an employee in a wheelchair who needed a special desk. A custom made desk to accommodate the higher height of a wheelchair cost $4,000. But instead, a solution was arrived at to elevate the desk with wooden blocks. The cost was only $12.

“Most of the time we find these accommodations are very simple and inexpensive,” Walker said. “It is a partnership between the employee and the employer that creates a win-win for company and the employee. And ultimately Mississippi benefits from that. All of us have different levels of ability. We need to recognize a person’s strengths and how that fits in with the company and what it produces.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Becky Gillette at bgillette@bellsouth.net.

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