Disability and Economic Precarity

By Michelle Lee Maroto & David Pettinicchio | November 16, 2022

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, disability advocates have drawn attention not just to the additional health risks faced by many people with disabilities, but to the ways ableism renders people vulnerable to economic precarity. The pandemic has made very clear that disability and gender are each important axes of inequality that shape employment outcomes and income. When the pandemic hit, both women and people with disabilities were disproportionately affected given their employment status and extant risk of living in poverty.

In the “matrix of domination,” disability’s intersection with gender further compounds economic disadvantage, where women with disabilities face double penalties. 

The Intersections of Disability, Gender, Race, and Economic Precarity

In “Hierarchies of Categorical Disadvantage,” we apply an intersectional feminist framework to study the multiplicative effects of gender, disability, race, and education on income and poverty in the United States. We use data from the 2015 American Community Survey, a large national on-going cross-sectional survey, to analyze intersecting disadvantages across groups through models that jointly consider these four factors. Instead of separately comparing differences by gender, disability, race, and education, we interacted these variables, which allowed us to examine outcomes for groups like Black women with disabilities and high school degrees or white men with disabilities and university degrees. Employing an intercategorical approach, reveals how disadvantage accumulates across social categories leading to a hierarchy of disadvantage. We find that racial minority women with disabilities and less education had the highest rates of poverty and the lowest total income levels. 

Discrimination in the Labor Market

Discrimination in the labor market is a leading cause of economic precarity for disabled women. In the labor market, both women and people with disabilities are devalued by employers who often make decisions based on broad generalizations unrelated to employee skills or job demands. In studies designed to capture people’s unconscious and implicit attitudes, respondents often rate people with disabilities lower on scales and associate disability with childlike qualities. When researchers have specifically asked employers about why they think people with disabilities don’t get hired, they have discussed concerns over costs and productivity. These employer stereotypes and preferences lead to employment exclusion. Not surprisingly, people with disabilities are significantly more likely to be under or unemployed. Women and people with disabilities also experience occupational segregation  into, for example, “women’s work” or “jobs for the disabled,” that limits their employment opportunities and earnings. As a result, both groups are more likely to be clustered in low paying, precarious, non-union jobs often in the food and service sectors.

Stereotypes and employer attitudes not only vary by the nature of the disability, but also by how disability type interacts with gender. In our research, we found that for all disability types except independent living and sensory related disabilities, women saw smaller gaps in employment rates. Gender gaps were greatest among those with physical disabilities. In other words, even though women with disabilities were the most disadvantaged in getting jobs, men experience a greater “disability penalty” with larger effects on earnings. 

What does an intersectional framework tell us about this? When disability type is combined with common conceptions of masculinity and femininity, it results in differing and unequal outcomes for women and men given where they are in the labor market. Social norms about masculinity deny people with disabilities access to “masculine” and often higher-paying jobs because disability is associated with weakness.

Labor market exclusion has important impacts on earnings. Both gender and disability were negatively associated with earnings, but disparities were much larger on average for men who reported disabilities that limited their ability to work compared to those who reported any type of physical, cognitive, or sensory limitation. For women, the difference in earnings between those who did and did not report work-limiting disabilities was not as large. Nonetheless, women with disabilities earned the least of any group. 

Non-Employment Income

Low earnings no doubt have important impacts on economic precarity. But focusing on only labor market income masks how many women with disabilities rely on sources of income outside employment, likely because they face labor market barriers. This income includes government benefits, public assistance, Social Security Insurance, assets, and transfers from family members. Considering broader economic resources that include income from government benefits and family support illuminates how disadvantaged groups are disproportionately living on the edge and how they negotiate poverty. 

Our analysis found that women with disabilities and women of color with disabilities are more likely than white, non-disabled men to rely on income outside of employment.

They are also significantly more likely to live in poverty. When considering different sources of income, disabled Black and Hispanic women with less education had about 60% less in total income than non-Hispanic, non-disabled white men with higher education. This places them at the bottom of the hierarchy of disadvantage, as a result of the intersection of racism, sexism, classism, and ableism. 

Ending the Economic Precarity of Disabled People

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted how shifting risk to individuals and undermining social safety nets compounds disadvantage for disabled people already living on the edge. The pandemic has also demonstrated what kinds of generalized institutional supports act as buffers against economic disadvantage.  

Although the pandemic exacerbated inequality early on, government income supports, and benefits helped to limit economic insecurity. Government support is associated with large declines in poverty, especially in Canada and the United States. In the former, both pandemic supports like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and existing supports including Old Age Security, Guaranteed Income Supplement, and a variety of tax credits have helped. In the latter, the mix of stimulus checks, enhanced unemployment benefits, and expanded SNAP benefits helped alleviate poverty.

Beyond pandemic supports, our research shows that policy aimed at improving economic security for people with disabilities must be broad-based and targeted to multiple areas. In the labor market, this includes:

  • Addressing continuing discrimination against disabled workers
  • Improving access to unionized employment through passage of federal policies such as the PRO-Act. Our research has found that union membership benefits workers with disabilities more than other groups.
  • Ending the harmful subminimum wage, which makes it legal to pay people with disabilities below the federal minimum wage.

People with disabilities would also benefit from revisions to a variety of social assistance and support programs. Such changes include:

  • Eliminating asset caps for the receipt of social assistance to improve incentives to save and invest. Asset caps limit deny eligibility to recipient who most resources such as cash, vehicles, or property.
  • Addressing restrictive means-testing frameworks that exclude many who need support
  • Improve access to home-based care through Medicaid reforms

Dimensions of housing affordability and discrimination within housing markets must also be addressed, if we want to ensure people with disabilities can access housing and build wealth.  Additionally, access to education, up-to-date job training, and family supports, also go a long way in combatting disadvantage. Policymakers can and should take steps to end the economic disadvantage faced by disabled people, particularly those marginalized along multiple lines.

Michelle Lee Maroto is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Alberta. David Pettinicchio is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto.

Photo credit: Istock.com/jacoblund