Published: Mar 27, 2015 9:55 a.m. ET


WASHINGTON (MarketWatch) — Here’s more evidence the economy has gotten better in the past few years: The number of Americans collecting disability benefits fell in 2014 for the first time in 31 years.

The latest figures from the Social Security Administration show a 0.5% drop in ex-workers and their dependents who received disabled benefits last year.

Some 10.93 million workers 65 and under, along with a small number of spouses and children, were covered. That’s down from a record 10.99 million in 2013. A spokeswoman for the SSA did not know of any specific reason for the decline.

Applications for disabled benefits surged in the wake of the Great Recession and the share of people deemed eligible climbed by as much as 5.1% in 2010 to mark the biggest increase in seven years. Yet the number of new beneficiaries started to slow in 2012 and barely grew in 2013.

In 2014, the decline in disability payments stemmed entirely from a reduction in the number of spouses and children getting benefits.

Workers who successfully claimed disability benefits for themselves in 2014 actually rose slightly to 8.95 million from 8.94 million. Still, that was the smallest increase since 1983, when the rolls of disabled workers shrank 1.3% in the early stages of the “Reagan recovery.”

During the first six years of President Barack Obama’s stay in office, some 1.24 million people were granted disability benefits.

By comparison, some 1.71 million people were added to the disability rolls in the first six years of George W. Bush’s presidency and 1.08 million in the first six years of the Bill Clinton White House.

Yet despite the small drop in payments in 2014, the percentage of the civilian noninstitutional population that collects disability benefits remains near an all-time high. (The category excludes military personnel, the mentally ill, prison inmates and elderly in nursing homes. In 2014, that population rose to 249 million from 246.7 million in 2013, according to Labor Department statistics.)

Some 4.39% of healthy Americans 16 and older got disability benefits last year, down ever so slightly from a record 4.46% in 2012. The share of Americans on disability benefits began rising in the late 1980s and has doubled in the last 25 years.