The Labor Market Side of Disability-Benefits Policy and Law
Southern California Review of Law & Social Justice, Vol. 20, p. 1, 2011
65 Pages Posted: 8 Jun 2011 Last revised: 7 Jul 2011
Date Written: June 6, 2011
While most scholarship about the Social Security Administration’s ("SSA") disability benefits programs and policy focuses on issues of medical eligibility or the programs’ financing, this article analyzes the history, evolution, empirical vulnerabilities and current public policy issues generated from the much less examined labor market side of substantive disability benefits law and policy. Disability denotes a frame of reference – disability from work. Thus, the disability benefits programs have always evaluated eligibility with reference to the impact of a claimant’s medical impairment on the ability to perform work in the American labor market.
The primary administrative mechanism for ascertaining the availability of less demanding work to which disability claimants might adjust is an innovative medical-vocational matrix or "grid" regulation that takes administrative notice of job characteristics, job incidence, and adaptation assumptions based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s ("DOL") first occupational taxonomy, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles ("DOT") and other government surveys. However, the empirical data about the labor market upon which the grid regulation was based is nearly half a century old and dependent upon an occupational taxonomy (the DOT) that was discontinued twenty years ago. In addition, changes in disability policy and social welfare policy from the Americans with Disability Act ("ADA") of 1990 and the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act ("PRWORA") of 1996 that emphasize work over benefit receipt have provided impetus to reconceptualize disability benefits eligibility. Because of the complexity of the disability benefit programs’ existing labor market adjudicative process, the empirical vulnerabilities in the present system and the public policy currents from the ADA and PRWORA, a variety of alternatives has been suggested for altering or modifying the present system for adjudicating labor market work adjustment issues.
This article evaluates those alternatives and concludes that the SSA should employ a "mend it don’t end it" approach to the adjudication of labor market considerations in the disability benefits programs. It argues that the suggested alternatives to the present system are either fundamentally misguided or politically unpalatable. It urges acceptance of the National Research Council’s recommendation from a report issued in March 2010 for the DOL and SSA to collaborate on completion of an up-to-date and methodologically appropriate labor market taxonomy to support an updated grid’s empirical bases for continued use. It further advocates for institutionalizing at least decennial revision of the underlying labor market data and taxonomy to enhance the grid’s temporal reliability on a continuing basis. Finally, it eschews usage of a grid updating or revision process as an opportunity to tighten or restrict benefit eligibility in light of the consequences of wrongful disability benefit denial in a post-welfare reform reality of substantially restricted safety net alternatives and in a depressed and constricted economy for characteristically low-skilled, disability benefit claimants.
Keywords: Disability Benefits, Social Welfare Law, Administrative Law, Grid Regulations
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