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The number of people in Pennsylvania getting monthly disability benefits through Social Security is growing at an alarming rate.

Social Security Administration data show more than 390,000 Pennsylvanians qualified for disability payments in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available.

That figure represents a 50 percent increase since 2003, well above the national average of 39 percent growth during the same time.

Nationally, the number of recipients getting disability payments through Social Security has more than tripled since 1970, according to the Congressional Budget Office. But the increases have been sharper in recent years.

More women entering the workforce has been a contributing factor, as is a change 20 years ago that allowed children of disabled workers to qualify for benefits.

“Claims have changed over the years to simply include more people and therefore more need to explore all requirements as they relate to different audiences and situations,” said Sara Goulet, press secretary for the state Department of Labor and Industry, which oversees the Bureau of Disability Determination in Pennsylvania.

On top of evidence of a disabling medical condition, qualification for benefits is also based age, education level and work history, said W. Daniel Feehan, an attorney who handles Social Security disability claims at a Montgomery County law firm.

That means older workers with low levels of education and long careers in physically demanding jobs are more likely to qualify, but Feehan said he has seen an uptick in the number of younger workers seeking benefits.

Other research also shows the aging population is not entirely — or even primarily — responsible for the growth in disability benefits.

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