WASHINGTON -- For 30 years, blacks with serious ailments have been much more likely than whites to be rejected for benefits under Social Security disability programs, a congressional investigative agency has found.
From the initial claim through the appeals process, blacks have had a more difficult time obtaining benefits from the two largest federal programs for people with severe disabilities, which together now provide $43.2 billion in disability checks annually to millions of workers and their families, the study by the General Accounting Office concludes.
The study is the most comprehensive ever undertaken by the government about race and disability benefits.
It found that blacks are receiving proportionately more benefits than whites from the two Social Security programs for people with severe disabilities, the Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs.
It attributes this to the fact that blacks have a higher rate of work-related disabilities, earn lower incomes and file a greater number of claims. While the study did not explain that situation, other experts have pointed out that blacks tend to have jobs that are more labor-intensive.
The report does not conclude that the disparities rise from racial discrimination, but it rules out every other explanation and recommends that the Social Security Administration conduct an investigation to determine whether the programs are racially biased.
While the Social Security Administration questioned the study, it said that the report had already prompted it to begin an investigation to make sure its decisions were not motivated by race.
The study found that in 1988, the latest year analyzed, whites had an 8 percent better chance of receiving benefits after being initially turned down for Disability Insurance and a 4 percent advantage under the Supplemental Security Income program.
This was the case, the accounting office found, even accounting for the applicants' ages, education and types of disability.
In general, the study found that blacks had a far harder time in the appeals process than in filing initial claims. And in the appeals process, the greatest racial disparities were in Chicago, where blacks had a 10 percent to 17 percent disadvantage, and in New York, where they had a 15 percent disadvantage on average.
"The factors we analyzed could not explain most of the racial difference in allowance rates," the report stated.
"At the administrative law judge level, the largely unexplained racial difference in allowance rates calls into question the equity of treatment between black and white appellants under the Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income programs."
Significant disparities were found for every year as far back as 1961 for the Disability Insurance Program, which began in 1956, and for many years for the Supplemental Security Income program, which was created in 1972.
The Social Security Administration received a draft of the report several weeks ago and responded by questioning the statistical methods used by the accounting office.
But it also said that the report had prompted it to begin taking steps to reduce any racial disparity. It also said that it had begun to investigate the administrative law judges with records of the greatest disparities between their decisions on claims by blacks and whites. "Despite our very serious concerns with the GAO's methodology, the mere suggestion of bias in our adjudicatory process must be dealt with vigorously and decisively," said Gwendolyn S. King, commissioner of Social Security.
Disability Insurance is the nation's primary source of income for disabled workers covered by Social Security, and payments depend in part on the amount that employees have contributed to the program.
Supplemental Security Income provides federal and state assistance to the disabled, regardless of whether they are insured, if their savings are less than $2,000 and their monthly income is less than $422.
The government pays $2 billion in Disability Insurance each month to 3.2 million workers and 1.3 million children and spouses. The average payout is $610 a month.
The Supplemental Security Income program provides $1.6 billion each month to 3.5 million Americans.
The highest payout is $422 monthly.
Sen. William S. Cohen, R-Maine, who provided a copy of the report, said the evidence clearly supported the conclusion that race played an important part in the awarding and rejection of disabilities claims.
"There appears to be a racial bias within the the administrative process of the Social Security system," said Mr. Cohen, the ranking minority member of the Senate Special Committee on Aging, which oversees the Social Security Administration. "It's another sign of the problems facing black Americans and minorities."