Mark Warshawsky describes one way in which Social Security’s oversight agency is falling short of its responsibilities.

One of the main ways the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines whether or not an individual applying for disability is entitled to benefits is by evaluating if she has sufficient residual capacity that would allow her to work in any occupation generally available in the economy, given her education and experience. In order to make this judgement, the SSA requires up-to-date information about existing occupations, including their prevalence and the physical, mental, environmental, and educational requirements. Amazingly, SSA is still using an information source that originated in the Great Depression when the economy was primarily industrial, and work was mainly physical; this source, with a listing of over 10,000 detailed occupations, industry by industry, largely in the manufacturing sector, was last updated, albeit only partially, more than 30 years ago. There is no reflection of the economy’s shift to the service sector, the widespread attainment of high school and even college education, the mental aspects of work, later retirements, the common use of automation and electronic technologies and communications, or varied work schedules. For example, SSA’s listing includes occupations such as phonograph cartridge assembler and record-changer assembler and tester, but not roles like solar photovoltaic electrician, call center representative, or web page designer (although it does include wood-web-weaving-machine operator).

SSA, somewhat belatedly, recognized this incongruity around 15 years ago and commissioned another government agency, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), to survey businesses and governments on the current job requirements of about 1000 broader categories of occupations, consistent with the current government classification and data collection system. This survey reflects the more modern view of labor, recognizing that narrow definitions of occupations do not capture the fluidity of a changing, largely non-unionized, market economy and the flexibility of workers’ innate capacities. Thus far, SSA has spent more than $300 million on this complex survey and the first full results became available in 2020. Indeed, by January 2021, SSA had internally completed a comprehensive regulation based on this new data source to update and simplify its complex rules for evaluating the vocational aspects of disability benefit adjudication. Yet, amazingly again, SSA has yet to employ this new BLS data or issue a new regulation to enable it to do so.