Data Notes: Social Security Disparities

In a new series of posts, I’ll highlight recent data releases that may be of interest to readers working on topics in public management.

Today’s release is from TRAC at Syracuse:

Social Security Awards Depend More on Judge than Facts: Disparities Within SSA Disability Hearing Offices Grow


A court-by-court analysis of close to two million Social Security Administration (SSA) claims has documented extensive and hard-to-explain disparities in the way the administrative law judges (ALJs) within the agency’s separate hearing offices decide whether individuals will be granted or denied disability benefits.

These findings — discussed in detail below — suggest that in many SSA hearing offices today, the chance a disability claim is granted or denied is often determined more by the particular judge assigned to handle it than by the facts and circumstances presented in the case.

The findings further document that the problem is not simply the result of a few judges whose decisions are far out of line with those of other judges on the bench. Rather, the agency’s own case-by-case evidence demonstrates that the problem is systemic. To a surprising extent the records on disability decisions show again and again that even within the individual offices there is not a clear consensus among the judges about which claims should be awarded versus which should be denied.