State officials make the initial determination, rejecting 65 percent of claims, according to a 2010 paper coauthored by Autor and the University of Maryland’s Mark Duggan.
From there, the next level is an appeal to the federal agency, usually rejected. Then it’s on to an administrative law judge, where the real action begins. The vast majority of those rejected at the first two stages move on to an ALJ appeal.
And why wouldn’t they? ALJs overturn 75 percent of rejections, Autor and Duggan wrote, though there is wide variation from one ALJ to the next. With a ratio like that, anyone who does not appeal is not playing the game properly.
The result is a tortuous process where claimants must commit to a two- to three-year process before they get an actual determination.
“It’s not just a problem between the state and the ALJ level,” said Erkulwater. “There is also a great deal of variation from state to state.” Even within a state, she says, there is great difficulty in fixing an “equitable and coherent policy.”
Finding a fix
In March, Autor will join other disability policy wonks in Washington to take a hard look at one program in crisis (SSDI) embedded within another, also in crisis (Social Security). With the 2016 fund depletion looming, a fix must be found. All options are on the table, including tighter filters at the front end and less generous benefits.
As things stand, Autor’s greatest fear is that the no-work requirements and lengthy determination process will combine to permanently drive workers out of the economy, including those who might easily have stayed in with help.
Also high on his agenda is an alternative transitional safety net for displaced workers adrift in the new economy.
“For those with low skills and low employability, the U.S. lacks any long-term support programs, wage insurance, job training,” Autor said. “The U.S. is not really set up to help people who have become permanently displaced from work.”
Autor and Duggan’s 2010 paper laid out a proposal to redirect the disability system “toward supporting employment — opposite of its current configuration.”
They see their proposal strictly as a dialog starter, Autor said. It calls for a flexible program that catches disabled workers early, screens them better, and helps them stay in the workforce instead of dropping out.
Meanwhile in Lindon, Dal Schrader continues to work fulltime at Wal-Mart, fighting fatigue and braving seizures. Sara is looking for a graveyard shift that will allow her to manage her own health issues while still being there for her children and Dal.
Their plan now is to drop Dal to part-time and reapply for SSDI. With luck, and yet more patience, the program already doing so much for so many at such great expense may finally find the man for whom it was meant.
Eric Schulzke writes on policy and politics for Deseret News. He earned a PhD in political science at U.C. Berkeley, and in his spare time works on The Apollo 13 Project, a prisoner reentry awareness project at www.a13.org.
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