The Social Security Administration (SSA) is responsible for administering the Social Security Disability Insurance and the Supplemental Security Insurance programs--the nation's two largest disability programs. SSA is required to administer its disability programs in a fair and unbiased manner. Nevertheless, the proportion of African American applicants allowed benefits has been historically lower than the proportion of white applicants. These allowances rate differences have occurred with respect to disability determinations made by state Disability Determination Service offices and in decisions made at the hearings level by Administrative Law Judges (ALJ). In response to GAO's 1992 report, SSA initiated an extensive study of racial disparities in ALJ decisions, but methodological weaknesses preclude conclusions being drawn from it. The study--the results of which were not published--set out to analyze a representative sample of cases to determine whether race significantly influenced disability decisions, while simultaneously controlling for other factors. SSA officials told GAO that, by 1998, they found no evidence that race significantly influenced ALJ decisions. However, GAO was unable to draw these same conclusions due to weaknesses in sampling and statistical methods evident in the limited documentation still available for GAO's review. Concurrent with SSA's study of racial disparities, SSA's Office of Hearings and Appeals (OHA) took some limited steps at the hearings level to address possible racial bias in ALJ decision-making. OHA instituted a mandatory diversity sensitivity training course for ALJs. Additionally, OHA increased its efforts to recruit minorities for ALJ and other legal positions by attending conferences for minority bar associations, where SSA distributed information and gave seminars on how to become an ALJ. Finally, in keeping with its commitment to provide fair and impartial hearings, SSA established a new process under the direction of OHA for the review, investigation, and resolution of claimant complaints about alleged bias or misconduct by ALJs.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Social Security Administration||1. To address shortcomings in SSA's ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--which would improve SSA's assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--the agency should conduct ongoing analyses to assess the representativeness of the sample used in its quality assurance review of ALJ decisions, including testing the statistical significance of differences in key characteristics of the cases included in the final sample with those that were not obtained.|
|Social Security Administration||2. To address shortcomings in SSA's ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--which would improve SSA's assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--the agency should include the results of this analysis in SSA's annual and biennial reports on ALJ decision making.|
|Social Security Administration||3. To address shortcomings in SSA's ongoing quality assurance process for ALJs--which would improve SSA's assessment of ALJ decision-making accuracy--the agency should use the results to make appropriate changes, if needed, to its data collection or sampling design to ensure a representative sample.|
|Office of Hearings and Appeals||4. To more readily identify patterns of misconduct, including racial bias, in complaints against ALJs, SSA's Office of Hearing and Appeals should adopt a form or some other method for summarizing key information on each ALJ complaint, including type of allegation.|
|Office of Hearings and Appeals||5. To more readily identify patterns of misconduct, including racial bias, in complaints against ALJs, SSA's Office of Hearing and Appeals should use internal, administrative data, where available, to identify and document the race or ethnicity of complainants.|
|Office of Hearings and Appeals||6. To more readily identify patterns of misconduct, including racial bias in complaints against ALJs, SSA's Office of Hearing and Appeals should place the complaint information in an electronic format, periodically analyze this information and report the results to the Commissioner, and develop action plans, if needed.|