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Stories About Social Security Disability Appeals Rely on Old Statistics

The attacks on Social Security Disability continue. These attacks are often distributed by seemingly respected media outlets, such as the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). The fact that such attacks appear in "respectable" newspapers covers up the fact that they are often based on false or misleading information. Take, for example, an op-ed piece that appeared in the WSJ on March 8th attacking what it suggested was a very common practice: gaming the system by trying to find the "best" administrative law judge to handle an appeal. Allegedly over-generous judges, according to the authors, are one of the reasons that the SSD system is facing a crisis.

The Real Story Supported by Recent Statistics

Really? Let's look at the real facts, presented another op-ed piece a day later in the Los Angeles Times. Moreover, let's use up-to-date data. The WSJ piece was based on 2008 statistics; much more recent statistics exist, both from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and from websites that monitor and publish government data. Using old data allowed authors of the WSJ article to paint a much more damaging picture than would have been possible had they used recent statistics.

For example, the authors claimed that administrative law judges (ALJs) approved more than 70 percent of all cases they reviewed. In fact, the approval rate has been declining for years, and was 56 percent at the end of 2013. A non-government website that reports SSD appeals approvals shows that the approval rate is even less today. As of February 12, 2015, the ALJ approval rating overall was 44 percent.

The Los Angeles Times piece asks why the authors relied on old information when newer, more accurate data was available. Was it possibly to paint the most damaging picture possible?

Critics Don't Only Use Old Statistics; They Use No Statistics

In addition to basing their assertions on old data, the WSJ op-ed made statements based on no data at all. For example, the same authors claimed that the reason for the huge backlog in disability appeals that people seeking to appeal a previous denial of benefits go shopping to find a sympathetic judge, withdrawing their appeal if they think it will be denied and then going on to another judge.

The authors provide no supporting data for their assertions about judge-shopping. Others who know the SSD arena say the reason that the writers provide no data is that there is none, and that the number of claimants who go shopping for a sympathetic judge is statistically insignificant. Moreover, do most claimants know that there might be a difference in judges' approaches to handling SSD appeals?

Critics Tell Only Half the Story When Describing SSD

Another question: The WSJ writers did not mention that there are also judges who have been criticized because their approval rates are significantly lower than average. What they also did not mention is that judges with lower-than-average approval ratings are more frequently reversed later on.

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