Blacks less likely to get benefits GAO study finds possible bias in disability claims.


WASHINGTON -- Black people with serious ailments have been much more likely than whites over the past 30 years to be rejected for benefits under Social Security disability programs, according to a federal study.

The study by the General Accounting Office showed that from the initial claim through the appeals process, black people have a more difficult time obtaining benefits from the two largest federal programs for people with severe disabilities.

The programs provide $43.2 billion annually in disability checks to millions of workers and their families.

The Social Security Administration questioned the study and its methodology. But it has begun an investigation to make sure its decisions are not motivated by race.

"All Americans seeking assistance from their government must know that the principles of fundamental fairness and equity will be afforded them regardless of race, sex, or national origin," said Gwendolyn S. King, commissioner of Social Security.

Republican Sen. William Cohen of Maine, who provided the New York Times with a copy of the report, said "there appears to be a racial bias within the administrative process of the Social Security system."

The study is the most comprehensive ever undertaken by the government about race and disability benefits.

The study found that blacks as a group are receiving 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 are due to racial discrimination but rules out every other explanation and recommends that the Social Security Administration conduct an investigation to determine whether the programs are racially biased.

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 said.

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