Disability Is a Major Part of Poverty

A clip from a Bernie Sanders rally went viral yesterday, climbing to the most-viewed lists of a number of websites, including the Washington Post. In the clip, a woman suffering from disability-induced poverty tearfully describes her plight:

It’s so hard to do anything to pay your bills, you’re ashamed all the time...when you can’t buy presents for your children it’s really really really hard – and I work 3, 4, 5 jobs sometimes, always minimum wage, I have a degree, divorced and it’s just I’m waiting for disability to come through so my parents have to support me – it’s just hard.

Although they don't get much play in mainstream poverty discussions, the disabled are a huge part of the poverty landscape in America. Finding ways to increase the incomes of disabled people (whether through market or transfer income) is an indispensable part of any serious anti-poverty strategy.


On the individual level, there were around 22.8 million disabled adults aged 18-64 in 2014. That's equal to 11.6% of the 18-64 population.

The poverty rates for disabled adults are much higher than the poverty rates for nondisabled adults.

Around 1 in 2 disabled adults are in poverty based on market income while nearly 1 in 3 are in povety based on disposable income (i.e. when counting into income cash benefits like SSDI and SSI).

Because of these high poverty rates, disabled adults make up 32.8% of all adults aged 18-64 in market-income poverty and 26.3% of all adults in disposable-income poverty (this despite making up just 11.6% of adults in this age group). When you look out into the sea of impoverished working-age adults, a huge amount of what you actually see are disabled people.


Naturally, disabled people often live in families. So the impoverishment of disabled people spills over to many nondisabled people as well.

In 2014, 17.9 million (16.9%) of nonelderly families had one or more disabled members.


The poverty rates for families with disabled members are similar to the poverty rates for disabled individuals.

Around 1 in 2 families with a disabled member is in market-income poverty. Around 1 in 3 are in disposable-income poverty.

Families with a disabled member make up 38.3% of all families in market-income poverty and 31.2% of all families in disposable-income poverty.

Individuals in Families with Disabled Members

Finally, if we analyze individuals within families that have disabled members, we can get perhaps the best appreciation of disability's long reach.

In 2014, 41.8 million people lived in nonelderly families that had one or more disabled members. Around half of those people (54.4%) were disabled themselves. The other half (45.6%) were the nondisabled relatives of disabled family members.

When we look at poor individuals living in nonelderly families with a disabled member, we find this.

Around 16.6 million people living in nonelderly families with a disabled member were in market-income poverty. Around 11.3 million of those people were disabled themselves while the other 5.3 million were simply cohabiting nondisabled relatives. For disposable-income poverty, the number of impoverished people in families with a disabled member falls to 11.6 million people: 7 million disabled themselves and 4.6 million nondisabled relatives.

Altogether then, 35.5% of all (market) poor people living in nonelderly families are living in a family with a disabled member. For the disposable-income (actual) poor, the same number is 28.7%.


No matter how you cut it, disability is an enormous part of the overall poverty equation. This fact is not reflected much in the think tank poverty discourse as that is largely driven by ideological concerns unrelated to actual poverty. It's also not reflected in most media representations as those representations are selected by reporters and journalists who are looking for specific archtypes. But the enormity of disabled people show up clear as day in the poverty microdata and it's heartening to see this reality reflected for once in the voice of a campaign rally audience member.

Technical Notes.

Disability is defined here as those who 1) have one of the six serious disabilities tracked by the Census, 2) were out of the labor force for part of the year because of illness or disability, or 3) were out of the labor force for the entire year because of illness or disability.

Nonelderly family is defined as a family without anyone above the age of 64.