Social Security’s unethical use of junk data must stop 

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Martin O’Malley, the new Social Security commissioner, recently testified at three congressional hearings, in the span of just two days. That’s unusual in Washington D.C., and reflects the urgency of dealing with serious problems besetting an agency responsible for paying $1.3 trillion in annual benefits to 70 million Americans. 

Unfortunately, O’Malley’s testimony only obscured a festering issue at the Social Security Administration. 

One source of congressional aggravation raised at the hearings is Social Security’s continued use of outdated job data when making disability determinations. Indeed, Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), ranking member on the Senate Finance Committee, made this a centerpiece of his opening remarks.  

The source of concern is that O’Malley’s agency uses junk data to deny disabled Americans needed benefits. Disability applicants are routinely denied benefits because Social Security says they could be gainfully employed “sorting nuts,” “processing eggs,” “addressing envelopes” or “preparing documents.” 

Social Security’s list of jobs comes from an outdated book called the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. Although largely assembled in the 1970s, it is still used for denials today.  

In a remarkable feat of data collection, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) just produced a gold-standard collection of data on the physical, mental and environmental requirements of work in the current U.S. economy. In fact, Social Security worked closely with BLS to define data elements so that the new data could be used in its disability programs. 

When challenged on why Social Security is still using the outdated information after spending millions to collect the new data, Commissioner O’Malley offered a pretty uninformed response. He lamented that spending on the data collection seemed to have “no end.”  

In fact, there was an end: BLS produced the data. It’s available online right here, and the only thing preventing Social Security from using it are the failures of its own management.

O’Malley also offered some vague testimony suggesting that instead of “researchers” collecting job data, perhaps something with “available technology,” “data matching,” and “other things that are out there in the world” would be the way to go. Maybe O’Malley thinks that using Indeed’s job listings, or something similar, will provide data that will stand up in federal courts when disability appeals are heard. If so, that is remarkably naïve.

What is really going on here? It is likely that O’Malley has been influenced by Social Security’s bureaucracy. Social Security’s headquarters staff are heavily invested in managing the optics of the data problem, rather than solving the problem. It is also possible that O’Malley doesn’t want to expend the political capital to solve such a substantive problem, but rather leave it for a successor to tackle. 

Looking at past agency comments, along with the language O’Malley has now adopted, it is not hard to see the outlines of Social Security’s coming effort to paper over its junk data problem.  

Social Security will likely announce that a few of the most ridiculous occupations in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles will no longer be used and, for additional cover, perhaps hint that the agency is considering some new, innovative approach to collecting data (the new approach will be vaguely specified and, of course, end up going nowhere). 

But, whether Social Security Administration staffers have been forthright in briefing O’Malley or not, he should understand that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles is deeply embedded in Social Security’s regulations and policy. There is no partial fix to the junk data. 

Sen. Bill Cassidy’s (R-La.) exchange with O’Malley during the Senate Finance hearing was particularly interesting. He championed the collection of the new BLS data, but instead of declaring victory (BLS actually collected the data Cassidy championed), O’Malley offered the same sad picture of Social Security struggling to do anything. Cassidy was visibly frustrated. 

Congress needs to actually get into the details and pin down the source of the problem — and then provide some direction. 

The simplest step is for Congress to insist that Social Security take administrative notice of the new BLS data. Social Security will never again get data this easy to use or of such high quality.  

By taking administrative notice of the new BLS data, Social Security would, in effect, encourage its vocational experts to use the data when testifying at disability hearings. That, in turn, would allow Americans to get fair hearings on their disability applications.  

Vocational experts are part of the private sector and are required to provide independent expertise when testifying.  Social Security cannot prevent them from using better data.   

Many vocational experts view the continued use of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles as unprofessional or even unethical. The new BLS data is now being used in expert testimony at some disability hearings. Hopefully, that trend will continue, and perhaps the private sector can provide leadership if the government continues to fail.  

David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. His views do not reflect the views of any organization. 

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