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The Social Security Administration (SSA) just sent a proposal to the administration’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) that press reports describe as making it harder for older workers to receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits. After a review of the Agency’s Financial Report for Fiscal Year 2020, Michelle A. King (CFO, SSA) “The auditors identified a new significant deficiency concerning internal control over disability program monitoring.” The proposal may attempt to gain internal monitoring controls that will ultimately prevent as many as 500,000 older Americans from receiving SSDI benefits.

Whether the SSA can slip this proposal through the regulatory process before President-Elect Biden’s inauguration is contingent upon the SSA and OMB respecting the formal regulatory process. It is by law, not regulation, that requires the SSA to consider age, education, and work experience when determining a person’s eligibility status as defined by their disability. The SSA current rules cite that workers in their 50s will have more difficulty adjusting to occupational requirements following the onset of a disability than younger counterparts. The newly proposed regulation would seek to undo these rules to a large extent, thus making SSDI qualifications for older workers more difficult.

The Hill opinion piece predicts the SSA will use misdirection and even fiction to make the proposal “sellable,” including centering efforts around the buzzword economic “modernization.” The point of view is that a modern economy provides many jobs that disabled or displaced workers can do. Yet, The Journal of Disability Policy Studies finds the issue of qualification to be transparent. That those Americans denied SSDI have only marginally more favorable health circumstances than approved beneficiaries, and typically 73 percent of these denied applicants have very limited participation in the modern economy with earnings of less than 100 dollars a month. Qualified SSDI beneficiaries have even less success in venturing into the modernized economy.

Sadly, this proposal will also exacerbate inequality in America along the lines of race and income. More than 25 percent of denied SSDI applicants are Black, and nearly 40 percent of rejected applicants live in poverty. The proposal sent to the OMB will bring more denials for those in need and seems out of touch with the many Americans who are facing serious problems, particularly during the coronavirus pandemic. While trying to push policy changes through before a new administration takes control is politically common, but in this particular case, up to 500,000 Americans with disabilities may not qualify for needed benefits. For those benefit applications denied, the SSA must cite occupations that the applicant can perform in the national economy. The book used to identify occupations, written in the 1970s, contains many now-defunct job descriptions. For example, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles (DOT) lists addressers as work involving addressing by hand or typewriter, envelopes, and cards. The federal court system takes umbrage with claims by the SSA that there are 200,000 full-time employed “addressers” in the country and eventually must strike down SSA’s use of the DOT. Until job description information in the DOT matches the modernized economy of the 2020s, the SSA will continue to use the older data to its advantage and limit the numbers of Americans who can qualify for SSDI.

The coming months should bring some much-needed clarity to this issue. In the meantime, if you have any questions or want to discuss any concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Please contact our Liberty office today to discuss your individual planning needs.