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Archive for May, 2011

Are Americans applying for disability as an ‘early retirement’ option?

Monday, May 23rd, 2011

Male disability applicants rejected for federal benefits tend to have lower earnings and labor force participation rates over the decade prior to applying for federal disability benefits, a new study finds. Rejected applicants also work less despite being in better health than accepted applicants, according to the research led by economist Seth Giertz of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

On average, the study found, those rejected for benefits made 8.5 percent less than beneficiaries six years before applying – and nearly 22 percent less just prior to application. Also, applicants who were rejected left the workforce faster as their application dates approached than those who were approved for benefits.

The findings suggest that many of the rejections may have been because applicants were not entirely motivated by health reasons when seeking disability.

“This adds to a growing literature suggesting that financial factors may be a driving factor in a large number of disability applications,” said Giertz, assistant professor of economics at UNL. “Federal disability programs have undergone tremendous growth in recent decades and appear to be discouraging able-bodied adults from staying in the labor force.”

The work sheds light on the efficacy of the government’s disability screening process by factoring in applicants’ pre-application work characteristics, and implies that rejected and accepted disability applicants have much different labor-market experiences before applying. Most notably, the rejected applicants were worse-off economically – consistent with other research examining disability claims for those in declining industries.

On a positive note, the study suggests that the screening process does, at least to a certain degree, separate out those applicants partially motivated by economic considerations from those facing more severe health issues.

“However, the rapid growth of the program over a period where health has improved and jobs have become less physically demanding suggests that the system is broken and in need of reform,” Giertz said. “Without changes, the federal disability programs are on a fiscally unsustainable path. For some, disability may be becoming a transition to retirement.

“This ‘early retirement option’ will be more appealing to people with fewer or declining economic opportunities – such as those in in industries experiencing a negative economic shock.”

Applications to U.S. federal disability programs have grown considerably in recent decades. In 2005, more than 2.12 million people applied for benefits from the Social Security Disability Insurance program, while the Supplemental Security Income program received nearly 1.1 million applications. For the former, that’s more than five times the number of applications in 1960 and almost twice its 1990 levels.

For their analysis, the economists examined the behavior of respondents in the Health and Retirement Study who were linked to Social Security earnings records. That analysis also produced these findings:

-Nearly 77 percent of applicants with less than a high-school diploma were eventually accepted, the highest rate of any education group.

-Those ages 31 to 40 were the most likely to be accepted, at 86.5 percent, followed by ages 41 to 50, at 77.4 percent.

-Accepted applicants were more likely to have heart, circulatory or blood conditions, but many of the other health conditions had similar acceptance rates.

“The direct fiscal stress resulting from the growth in federal disability benefits is exacerbated by the fact that disability beneficiaries become eligible for either Medicare or Medicaid, the two programs at the heart of the nation’s long-term fiscal problems,” Giertz said.

The research, co-authored by economics professor Jeffrey Kubik of Syracuse University, appears in the current edition of the Journal of Labor Research.

Contact Seth Giertz, assistant professor of economics, at (402) 472-7932 or

UNL gets Willa Cather materials, including unfinished novel

Friday, May 13th, 2011

Charles Cather, an heir to his aunt Willa Cather, has left an estate gift to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln that includes manuscripts including the beginning of her last novel, letters, medals and inscribed first editions of her work.

Charles Cather, Willa’s nephew, died March 14 in California, and his personal property relating to Willa Cather was given to the University of Nebraska Foundation. The materials, which were loaned to the foundation from Charles Cather and became a gift upon his death, arrived last December to be catalogued by the university. While the materials have not been formally appraised, the estimated value is $2 million.

“This is a treasure trove of materials that sheds distinctive light on Cather’s working life, and allows us to see just how relentlessly creative she was, even at the end of her life,” said Guy Reynolds, professor of English and director of the Cather Project at UNL.

The collection includes hand-written scenes from Cather’s last, unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments.” This manuscript has not previously been made public.

“The collection holds tremendous significance to Cather scholars, with documents that provide unique glimpses into her creative process,” said Andrew Jewell, editor of the Willa Cather Archive, and associate professor at University Libraries. “Here, for the first time, are early drafts of prose that eventually were transformed into one the greatest novels in American literary history: ‘Death Comes for the Archbishop.’”

The hand-written scenes from her unpublished novel, “Hard Punishments,” were long thought to have been destroyed. Some of the documents from the collection were never known by scholars to have existed, like notebooks full of hand-drawn maps of locations Cather featured in her fiction.

“The Charles Cather collection is an astounding and a wonderful complement to the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s other rich Cather collections,” Jewell said.

Items included in the Charles Cather donation:

* Pages from her last unfinished novel
* 1926 notebook and maps from a trip Cather took to New Mexico. The materials are annotated and are the inspiration for her book “Death comes for the Archbishop.”
* Handwritten manuscript of “Death Comes for the Archbishop”
* The William Dean Howells Medal for “Death Comes for the Archbishop.” The medal, established in 1925, is given once every five years in recognition of the most distinguished American novel published during that period. Willa Cather was the second winner of the medal in 1930.
* Several inscribed books she gave to her partner, Edith Lewis
* Photographs
* Letters of advice to her nephew, Charles Cather
* Ledgers detailing what Willa Cather was earning

UNL has the largest Cather archive in the world. The author graduated from the university in 1895 and died in 1947. Her novels, such as “O Pioneers,” “My Antonia” and “Song of the Lark,” recognized frontier life on the Great Plains. She won the Pulitzer Prize in 1922 for “One of Ours.”

Katherine Walter, chair of Digital Initiatives and Special Collections for the UNL Libraries, has seen nine of 15 Cather collections come to UNL, including all the significant collections by Cather family members.

“Charles Cather’s gift adds greatly to our knowledge of Willa Cather’s writing and furthers our insight into her circle of friends and family. These close relationships meant much to her as a writer,” Walter said. “With this acquisition, the UNL Libraries’ Archives and Special Collections is now home to 15 Cather collections of extraordinary value to scholars and students, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Libraries’ holdings of Cather’s works are the most significant in the world.”

National coverage: The Chronicle of Higher Education | The Associated Press 1, 2, 3

Red mate, blue mate: Study says U.S. couples select on basis of politics

Wednesday, May 11th, 2011

Presidential nominees carefully pick their running mates so that their ticket is in solid agreement on the issues. But what about the average married couple? A new study of U.S. spouses shows they partake in very little political vetting, but tend to walk in political lockstep throughout their relationship, anyway.

In an article to be published in the Journal of Politics, researchers examined physical and behavioral traits in thousands of spouse pairs in the United States. They found that political attitudes were among the strongest shared traits – stronger, even, than qualities like personality or looks.

That’s because spouses in the study appeared to be “sorting” on the basis of politics – instinctively selecting a partner who happened to have similar social and political views. People “placed more emphasis on finding a mate who is a kindred spirit with regard to politics, religion and social activity than they (did) on locating similar mates in terms of physique or personality,” according to the article.

Meanwhile, researchers found little support for the notion that partners tended to adapt to one another’s political beliefs over time, a discovery that could have implications on partisan politics for generations to come.

“We did expect to find a strong political bond between husbands and wives,” said John R. Hibbing, University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor of political science and a co-author of the study. “But we were surprised that political concordance seems to exist from the very early years in the marriage, instead of the folk wisdom of mates growing more alike politically as their relationship goes along.”

The study adds to recent “sorting” research that has uncovered a surprising level of uniformity in Americans’ personal political communication networks – where they live, with whom they socialize and where they work.

The new research shows that this “sorting” doesn’t stop with the selection of neighborhoods or workplaces, however. It’s also visible in choice of spouses, said John R. Alford, professor of political science at Rice University and the study’s lead author.

“It suggests that, perhaps, if you’re looking for a long-term romantic relationship, skip ‘What’s your sign?’ and go straight to ‘Obama or Palin?’” Alford said. “And if you get the wrong answer, just walk away.”

Researchers were careful to note that “sorting” is not the only reason for spouses’ political uniformity. Social homogamy, or the tendency for people to choose a mate from within one’s own religious, social, economic and educational surroundings, plays a role. So does inter-spousal persuasion on different issues over the years. But those factors’ influences on participants’ political attitudes were relatively weak, according to the study.

Hear Hibbing discuss the study’s findings in a podcast.

What might this mean for the future of American politics? One interpretation, the authors said, is that if parents transmit political traits to their children, then the practice of liberals marrying liberals and conservatives marrying conservatives seems likely to decrease the number of people in the political middle.

“Obviously, parents are very influential in shaping the political beliefs of their children,” Hibbing said. “If both parents are on the left or on the right, it makes it more difficult for a child to be something different. It may be part of the reason why we see such polarization.”

This means that out-marriage – a major means by which diversity enters into extended families – doesn’t actually contribute much to the political “melting pot,” Alford said.

“Instead, marriage works largely to reinforce the ongoing ideological polarization that we see so clearly today,” he said.

The study, to appear in a forthcoming edition of the Journal, was authored by Rice’s Alford, UNL’s Hibbing, Peter K. Hatemi of the University of Sydney, Nicholas G. Martin of the Queensland Institute of Medical Research and Lindon J. Eaves of the Virginia Institute for Psychiatric and Behavioral Genetics.


John Hibbing, professor of political science, can be reached at 402.472.3220 or

National appearances for this research:
LiveScience | | Yahoo! News | United Press International | TIME

Expert alert: the death of Osama bin Laden

Monday, May 2nd, 2011

Osama bin Laden was buried at sea Monday after U.S. forces raided his hideout in Pakistan on Sunday, shot him in a firefight and then whisked his body out of the country. Several University of Nebraska-Lincoln experts can help put the death of the world’s most wanted man into context for readers and viewers.

– Everything an American president does, of course, is political. UNL political scientist Michael Wagner keeps a close eye on the U.S. political landscape: ”President Obama is likely to experience a short-term bump in his job approval over the next few weeks,” Wagner says. “This is a big, big story and will likely dominate news coverage from a variety of angles for the next week or more — and the tone of that coverage will almost be universally positive for Obama.  These approval spikes are short-lived, though. Recall President George H.W. Bush’s approval rating in the high 80s at the end of operations in Operation Desert Storm, for example.

“However, one reason that Bush’s approval ratings dropped was that the economy went into recession. Another reason might be that the public tends to already give the Republican Party high marks on national security issues. So, it might not have been as remarkable to the public that President Bush was successful in the first Gulf War. Now that a Democrat is enjoying major policy success on a national security issue, it is conceivable that the public will begin to consider that Democrats strong on security issues as well.

“Certainly the success of the operation will help diminish the memory of Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to rescue hostages from Iran in the 1970s. If Obama shores up Democratic strength on national security issues, he may be more able to absorb trouble with the economy than President Bush was in 1992.

“As for the unity of the American people, the data suggests that the happy faces and hand holding will come to an end soon. Already, Republican lawmakers are praising Obama’s efforts to lead the effort to kill Osama bin Laden and, in the same breath, are blaming him for high gas prices. In other words, partisan politics is not going away any time soon.

“Regarding 2012, the news may keep a few potential GOP candidates from announcing their intentions for a few weeks, which could have a small effect on the arc of the campaign from both fundraising and momentum perspectives.”

Wagner is at 402.472.2539 or More on Dr. Wagner


Speculation on what this may mean to the Muslim world and U.S. relations in the Middle East has begun in full. Simon Wood, associate professor of classics and religion studies, is an expert on modern Islam,  Christian-Muslim relations, and fundamentalism, religion and politics:

“The death of Osama bin Laden is of great symbolic importance for the U.S. and for the rest of the world. As the New York Times observed in an editorial, it is ‘an extraordinary moment for Americans and all who have lost loved ones in horrifying, pointless acts of terrorism,’” Wood says. “At the same time, as commentators here and abroad have noted, bin Laden had been a politically marginal figure for some time. Uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and much of the Arab world suggest that al-Qaeda and its leader had largely been swept aside by the tide of history. Millions of Arab Muslims – in some cases working together with Arab Christians – have risen up in rebellion against undemocratic leaders.

“Yet critically, their call has not been for a new Islamic caliphate, but for freedom, liberty, and democracy. Bin Laden and al-Qaeda did not remove the regimes of Ben Ali in Tunisia and Mubarak in Egypt. Tunisians and Egyptians did. And they did so through calling for peaceful change, not through following al-Qaeda’s lead. Further, the discourse of change has been framed by nation more than by religion. Al-Qaeda has utterly failed in its efforts to cast recent events in terms of its own ideology.

“Beyond the Arab world, one of the main issues to arise from bin Laden’s death is what it will spell for relations between the U.S. and Pakistan, a country of tremendous strategic importance even without the bin Laden factor. President Ali Zardari had claimed that bin Laden was in Afghanistan. But he was found in a mansion compound in Abbottabad. This is not far from Pakistan’s capital city and is home to its military college and a major army base. This brings Pakistan’s role into harsh focus, particularly regarding what has been the Pakistani government’s official line on al-Qaeda: that no relationships exist between the terrorist group and Pakistan’s military and intelligence communities.

“Even before bin Laden’s death political leaders such as David Cameron had treated this line with skepticism, and most observers now find it plainly lacking in credibility.”

Wood is at 402.472.2434 or More on Dr. Wood


Is it justice, or is it vengeance? And what does that say about Americans as a society? Ari Kohen, an expert in politial philosophy and restorative justice, has written on the topic as it relates to bin Laden’s killing at his popular weblog, Running Chicken:

“We call it justice, but that’s mostly because we don’t like calling it vegeance. Vengeance has a decidedly negative connotation and so a ‘Vengeance At Last’ headline would make the excited, screaming people in photo seem like unsavory characters; ‘Justice At Last,’ instead, sends the message that this celebration is the appropriate response,” Kohen writes.

“The real victory over Osama Bin Laden didn’t need to involve killing him so much as showing the whole world he was wrong about us. We’ve now managed the former; what will it take to accomplish the latter?”

Kohen can be reached at 402.472.3214 or More on Dr. Kohen | Dr. Kohen quoted by