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The Social Security Administration Is a Large Bureaucracy

Bowman, DePree & Murphy

The sheer size of the Social Security Administration (SSA) is a fundamental problem in dealing with it. It has more than 57,000 employees. There is also a separate SSA Office of Disability Adjudication and Review (ODAR) that has about 8,000 employees, including about 1,300 administrative law judges and 34 administrative appeals judges. Furthermore, there are more than 14,000 state agency employees nationwide involved in making determinations of disability below the administrative law judge hearing level.

It is difficult enough for a lawyer to figure out whom to contact about a claimant’s particular problem and then to determine how to contact them. Trying to do this on your own, without a lawyer, can be overwhelming.

The problem of SSA’s size is compounded by the complexity of its programs, and the most complicated are the two disability programs: Social Security disability and SSI. When there are program changes, it is a huge task to ensure that everyone within SSA who needs to know gets the information, and often they do not.

As an example of problems created by complexity, a test of the Social Security Administration’s nationwide toll-free telephone number showed 25% wrong answers to questions involving SSI. The toll-free number is most useful for information about the retirement program, not for questions about disability benefit entitlement.

Like all bureaucracies, SSA tries to develop routines for complex decisions. However, this does not work well for disability determinations below the administrative law judge hearing level because the medical-vocational issues tend to be complicated and because state agencies are simply not equipped to handle these issues. State agency disability determinations tend to be inadequate, and many people within SSA remain almost blissfully unaware of state agency decision shortcomings.

There is also a tendency for low-level bureaucrats to follow rules rigidly, whether or not application of the rule makes any senses.