Social Security:

Racial Difference in Disability Decisions Warrants Further Investigation

HRD-92-56: Published: Apr 21, 1992. Publicly Released: May 11, 1992.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO provided information on the lower allowance rate for black applicants, when compared to white applicants, under the Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Programs, focusing on reasons for the racial differences in: (1) state agencies' initial disability decisions; and (2) administrative law judges' (ALJ) appeals decisions.

GAO found that: (1) despite a lower allowance rate among black applicants, within the general and severely impaired populations, blacks receive Social Security benefits at a rate higher than or equal to that of whites, primarily because they apply at a higher rate and because a larger proportion of blacks are severely impaired; (2) in 1988, within the general population of working-age adults, blacks were almost twice as likely as whites to receive DI benefits and four times as likely to receive SSI benefits; (3) under the DI Program in 1988, state disability determination services (DDS) allowed benefits to 36 percent of white applicants and 29 percent of black applicants, and under the SSI program, DDS allowed benefits to 37 percent of white applicants and 29 percent of black applicants; (4) for SSI applicants between the ages of 18 and 24, DDS allowed benefits to 47 percent of white applicants and 34 percent of black applicants; (5) such racial differences do not appear to be related to differences in education, sex, geographic location, percentage of urban population, or impairment type; (6) among all applicants, the racial difference in allowance rates among young SSI applicants is particularly large for mental and neurological/sensory disorders; (7) under the DI Program, ALJ at the appeals level allowed benefits to 66 percent of white appellants and 51 percent of black appellants; (8) under the SSI Program, ALJ allowed benefits to 60 percent of white appellants and 51 percent of black appellants; and (9) racial differences in allowance rates vary widely across Social Security Administration (SSA) regions.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In March 1993, SSA completed an analysis of young SSI applicants at the initial level and found the variance in allowance rates due to a SSI rule of deeming income. The disparities noted by GAO are a result of differences in poverty rates by race for children. Black children under 18 are more likely to live in poverty than are white children. The SSI rule on deeming of income from parents to children means that a higher proportion of disabled white children will be found ineligible for SSI payments based on income. They may become eligible at age 18 when their parents' income is no longer deemed to them. At age 18, there is a surge of applications by disabled young adults because they become eligible. Although this occurs for both black and white, it is greater for white and results in the higher allowance rates observed by GAO.

    Recommendation: The Commissioner of Social Security should investigate the reasons for the racial difference in allowance rates among young SSI applicants at the initial decision level and act to correct any unwarranted disparities.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA completed five projects responsive to the GAO recommendation. SSA initiated a new ALJ quality assurance system in 1993 to review ALJ final decisions. SSA conducted two reviews in 1993-94 to examine the regions and ALJs most likely to have disparity in allowance rates between black and white applicants. SSA also implemented a national training program for ALJs to recognize bias in decisionmaking and plans to complete training of 180 ALJs by the end of September 1995.

    Recommendation: To maintain the integrity of the DI and SSI Programs, as even the appearance of discrimination is intolerable, the Commissioner of Social Security should further investigate the racial difference in allowance rates at the ALJ level and, if needed, take appropriate actions to correct and prevent any unwarranted disparities.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Public Health Service reviewed SSA medical listings to ensure that they take into account impairments occurring more frequently among minorities and that the listings are not inherently biased. The variance in allowance rates were due to a SSI rule of deeming income.

    Recommendation: In light of the particularly large racial difference in allowance rates associated with schizophrenia, as well as other mental, neurological/sensory, and respiratory categories of disorders, the Commissioner of Social Security should look into the criteria used in adjudicating such cases and the other circumstances that may explain the racial difference.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

 

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