One of the most commonly-cited reasons for not holding down a job has been disability.

The number of people who stayed out of the workforce because of health issues has risen for more than a decade. Economists were worried that there was no way to reverse this trend.

But something unexpected is happening: disabled Americans who can work are returning to the workforce. The New York Times reported:

Economists were especially alarmed because the increase [in people citing disability as a reason not to work] appeared tenacious. It was rising before the 2001 recession, rose faster in response to the 2001 and 2008 recessions, then kept rising during the subsequent recoveries.

But then it began to fall: slowly at first and then, beginning in 2016, faster. Over all, the number of prime-age people who cite disability as their reason for not working has shrunk by 7 percent since mid-2014.

The data shows that the decline has come almost entirely from the older half of the prime-age population (that is, people between 40 and 54). The drop has also been steeper among the less educated. The number of disabled nonparticipants without a high school diploma fell by 18 percent, versus 4 percent for those with at least a high school diploma. It has been somewhat larger among women (minus 9 percent) than men (minus 6 percent).

Around 10 percent of prime-age workers who described themselves as disabled in 2016 had found a job by 2017. This pace of job finding matches the rate in 1999 and 2000, when the labor market was generally tight and healthy.

This is good news indeed and it speaks volumes about an improved U.S. economy.

But there is another message: Americans intuitively know that work is meaningful. Not working is demoralizing for working age citizens.

It is likely that many of these people were receiving disability insurance payments. But when jobs became available, they knew that their lives would have more meaning if they worked.