Panel Paper: Social Security Disability: Variation in Disability Awards at the Appeals Level

Friday, November 9, 2018
8209 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Rachael Chamberlin, Jeff Tessin, Rhiannon Claire Patterson, Erin Godtland and Charlie Jeszeck, U.S. Government Accountability Office

The Social Security Administration (SSA) manages two disability programs that together provide about 16 million Americans with around $200 billion in benefits annually. Administrative law judges (ALJ) play an important role in SSA's decisions to allow disability benefits. When individuals do not agree with the initial decision on a claim for disability benefits, they can appeal the decision before an ALJ. Historically, allowance rates of ALJs—the rate at which they allowed disability benefits to be paid when claimants appealed—have varied greatly across SSA's approximately 1,500 judges. Using a statistical model to analyze SSA data on adult disability decisions, we examine the sources of variation in ALJ decisions. We find that, even after holding constant certain characteristics of claimants, judges, hearing offices, and other factors that could otherwise explain differences in allowance rates, a wide variation in allowance rates across judges persisted. Specifically, we estimated that the allowance rate could vary by as much as 46 percentage points between fiscal years 2007 and 2015 if different judges heard a typical claim (one that was average in all other factors we analyzed). However, the variation declined by 5 percentage points over this period, a change officials attributed to enhanced quality assurance efforts and training for judges. We also identified various factors that were associated with a greater chance that a claimant would be allowed benefits. In addition to characteristics related to disability criteria, such as the claimant's impairment and age, we found that claimants who had representatives, such as an attorney or family member, were allowed benefits at a rate nearly 3 times higher than those without representatives. Other factors did not appear related to allowance rates, such as the percentage of backlogged claims in a hearing office.