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Are Georgia Social Security disability judges truly too generous?

As battles over the federal budget continue in Washington, some lawmakers have repeatedly questioned whether we’re being too generous to people with disabilities that keep them from working. In June, three members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee were harshly critical of many Social Security disability judges who, they claim, grant benefits in between 50 and 75 percent of the appeals they hear. Since the judges only see these cases after two previous denials, shouldn’t they be turning most of them down?

Quite the contrary, many involved directly in the Social Security disability system itself say. The role of these administrative law judges, or ALJs, is to give a fair hearing to people who, all too often, are unfairly denied benefits they actually qualify for. Most people aren’t able to present the rigorous evidence and arguments required by the Social Security Administration bureaucracy, so they often don’t get their cases fairly heard until the ALJ hearing.

For example, in Georgia more than 70 percent of initial SSD applications are denied. The first appeal is merely a request for reconsideration of the application by a new field administrator. Only after that second denial can the applicant get a hearing before an administrative law judge.

While the committee members cited 195 judges -- about 12.5 percent of all Social Security ALJs -- as approving benefits in 75 percent of their cases, none of those 195 is in Georgia. In fact, nearly two-thirds of the ALJs in Georgia grant benefits in fewer than 50 percent of their cases.

A variety of factors need to be weighed when determining whether someone qualifies for Social Security disability, and high workloads among local administrators mean they aren’t in a good position to do so, many advocates admit.

Not only must the applicant’s medical condition be fully understood, but their age, overall health, level of education and employment background all contribute to their ability to work, and therefore to whether they qualify. For example, a 55-year-old general laborer with a high school education may be put out of work by a back injury, but a 30-year-old office worker with a college degree might not.

It’s crucial to remember that each applicant is an individual, and the question of whether they are suffering from a disability that will keep them from working for at least a year deserves an individual answer.

Sources: 

  • Chattanooga Times Free Press, "Inside the world of disability claims," Judy Walton, Sept. 16, 2013
  • DisabilitySecrets.com, "Filing for Disability in Georgia," Melissa Linebaugh, contributing author

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