Social Security Disability System Broken

Social Security Disability System Broken The Social Security disability system is ridiculously overburdened, the NYT details.

Steadily lengthening delays in the resolution of Social Security disability claims have left hundreds of thousands of people in a kind of purgatory, now waiting as long as three years for a decision. Two-thirds of those who appeal an initial rejection eventually win their cases. But in the meantime, more and more people have lost their homes, declared bankruptcy or even died while awaiting an appeals hearing, say lawyers representing claimants and officials of the Social Security Administration, which administers disability benefits for those judged unable to work or who face terminal illness.

The agency’s new plan to hire at least 150 new appeals judges to whittle down the backlog, which has soared to 755,000 from 311,000 in 2000, will require $100 million more than President Bush requested this year and still more in the future. The plan has been delayed by the standoff between Congress and the White House over domestic appropriations.

There are 1,025 judges currently at work, and the wait for an appeals hearing averages more than 500 days, compared with 258 in 2000. Without new hirings, federal officials predict even longer waits and more of the personal tragedies that can result from years of painful uncertainty.


The disability process is complex and the standard for approval has, from the inception of the program in the 1950s, been intentionally strict to prevent malingering and drains on the Treasury. But it is also inevitably subjective in some cases, like those involving mental illness or pain that cannot be tested.

In a standard tougher than those of most private plans, recipients must prove that because of physical or mental disabilities they are unable to do “any kind of substantial work” for at least 12 months — if an engineer could not do his job but could work as a clerk, he would not qualify — or an illness is expected “to result in death.”


Of the roughly 2.5 million disability applicants each year now, about two-thirds are turned down initially by state agencies, which make decisions with federal oversight based on paper records but no face-to-face interview. Most of those who are refused give up at that point or after a failed request for local reconsideration. But of the more than 575,000 who go on to file appeals — putting them in the vast line for a hearing before a special federal judge — two-thirds eventually win a reversal.

Mr. Astrue and other officials attribute the high number of reversals to several causes. Those who file appeals tend to be those with stronger cases and lawyers who help them gather persuasive medical data. During the extended waiting period, a person’s condition may worsen, strengthening the case. The judges see applicants in person, and have more discretion to grant benefits in borderline cases.

If the point of the system is to minimize the number of borderline applicants getting disability payments, it’s a resounding success. The process weeds out 1.6 million people each year, after all. And 192,000 plus people each year who had attorneys are denied payment, too.

One would think, though, that the purpose of the system is to provide assistance to the disabled. If so, then this is a disaster.

Presumably, some significant number of the 1.1 million initially denied benefits each year who decide not to appeal would in fact have won had they appealed. Maybe they’re mostly borderline cases. Quite likely, though, they either 1) presume that the government denied them benefits, so they’re simply not eligible or 2) lack the resources (knowledge, ability to afford an attorney, etc.) to continue the fight.

More significantly, the 383,000 or so people who win their appeal each year are forced to endure, for two or three years, the expense and stress of a process ostensibly designed to ease their burden.

While the piece frames this largely as a political squabble between the White House and Congress, the sheer numbers involved would seem to indicate that this is largely a demographic issue; the result of the long-expected explosion in entitlement needs of the Baby Boom generation. Hiring more judges and staff to break through the backlog is likely necessary but, given the size of the problem, it’s likely that a more radical overhaul of the process itself is necessary. Surely, there ought to be a way to provide reasonable checks and balances while providing at least a means for interim approval of people with demonstrated need.

UPDATE: Gary Farber, who knows a little something about the frustrations of this process, adds his thoughts here. If you can help him out a little while he deals with it, it’d be much appreciated.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Anderson says:

    It’s common knowledge that your first application is almost always denied. I’ve spoken with someone in the Mississippi agency handling these applications, and he confirms it.

    (The feds in some or all states, I dunno which, farm out this function to state agencies that are 100% federally funded. That may well be part of the problem right there — I suspect there’d be a better workforce handling these applications if the agency were actually federal.)

  2. Anderson says:

    (“Almost always” unless you’re missing a limb or something else egregious, I should say — which probably brings the # close to the 2/3 in the article.)

  3. Cernig says:


    When your colleagues said they wanted to starve the government you didn’t think they meant they would begin with the bits that serve big business, did you? For many in the GOP, so many “nanny-staters” having to wait years or having their claims denied is a feature, not a bug.

    Regards, C

  4. James Joyner says:

    When your colleagues said they wanted to starve the government you didn’t think they meant they would begin with the bits that serve big business, did you?

    Most small government conservatives want to end most “corporate welfare,” including subsidies for big agriculture. I think government has a role in promoting international commerce, funding certain types of R&D that aren’t commercially feasible, and the like, though.

    Even the most libertarian among us think government has a role in helping those who truly can’t help themselves. If you won’t work, it’s one thing; if you can’t work, it’s quite another.

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    To the best of my knowledge there is no pending legislation to generally reduce the length of time to process Social Security disability applications. There is a pending bill to allow a waiver of the wait time under specific circumstances.

    If you’re genuinely concerned about this issue, I suggest writing your Congressman. The lack of pending legislation suggests that this isn’t a pressing issue for either party at this point. I hope we’re not so simplistic as to think that, of course, a Democratically-controlled Congress will take care of stuff like this. It just doesn’t work that way.

    Even the most libertarian among us think government has a role in helping those who truly can’t help themselves. If you won’t work, it’s one thing; if you can’t work, it’s quite another.

    Unfortunately, I don’t believe that, James. There are obviously a lot of anarcho-capitalists and minarchists who don’t agree with that.

    I’d like to see some sort of breakdown of how many “small government conservatives” believe in some sort of safety net and how many don’t. I suppose that kind of information would be impossible to come by.

  6. Boyd says:

    I don’t know if I’m an anarcho-capitalist or a minarchist (since I’m too damn lazy to go look them up and haven’t had enough coffee yet on a Monday morning to figure them out on my own), but I for one don’t believe it’s the gummint’s job to take care of people, whether that need is established through actual need or just laziness. The only people they should take care of are employees, just like any other business. IMHO, of course.

  7. Anderson says:

    I for one don’t believe it’s the gummint’s job to take care of people, whether that need is established through actual need or just laziness.

    So it’s no one’s job, I guess, and the disabled should just die and get out of the way.

    There are countries exactly like that, Boyd – you can pack up & move there any time. America chose a different path.

  8. yetanotherjohn says:

    How much are the lawyers handling the appeals process making?

  9. Comment in violation of site policies deleted.

  10. Alan Kellogg says:

    It’s a false economy. State disability boards etc. think that by denying benefits to all but the most obviously disabled they will save money. Thus they end up spending more in the long run. Having gone through it myself, I can tell you that auditioning for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) in California is a bitch.

    I didn’t get SSI until I was hospitalized for clinical depression. That’s just one way the State of California wasted funds. When it comes to certain conditions the bar is set too high.

    There is also the fact the amount of money a person can earn outside of his SSI payment actually went down from $75.00 to $65.00 a month, while the savings one can have hasn’t been adjusted for inflation. Ever. The way I figure it, an amount that may have carried an SSI recipient through a year of non-payments now barely suffices for three or four months, and only if you scrimp and do without.

    The fraud that is the Consumer Price Index is another matter.

    Farber and I know clinical depression, it’s not something you just “get over”. Gary also knows about conditions I should hope I never come down with. Had we any choice in the matter, we wouldn’t have our common disability. But we have it, treatments are not always reliable or effective, and without the monthly stipend I’d be out on the street being an even bigger burden on society than I know am.

    I’m doing okay. I could use a little extra money for things like a new iMac, but I’m getting by with what I have now. Gary’s the one who needs the real help. Five dollars from one person helps, Five dollars from one hundred people helps a lot. (And you help support PayPal too. 🙂 ) So contribute what you can.