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Congress needs to address the ‘soft racism’ in its annual spending process

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For the first time in over a decade, the Social Security Administration (SSA) released data from its administrative records on the number of Black people who receive Social Security benefits. Because of long-standing racial disparities in health outcomes, Black Americans are far more in need of benefits from Social Security’s disability programs — and those disability programs are in a free fall, thanks largely to cuts by Congress to SSA’s administrative budget.

Appropriators and their counterparts on the budget committees need to acknowledge and reflect on the harm they have done to minorities in the United States and — of more importance — strive to do better by these citizens. 

It is also important for SSA to widely publicize its new data and engage new groups in Congress, including the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Certainly, many Republicans have pursued policies that would harm individuals with disabilities. Most notably, the Trump administration tried to force through regulatory changes that would have cut benefits for individuals with disabilities and would have disproportionately harmed Black Americans.

Democrats, however, are not blameless in the bureaucratic mistreatment of disabled people. The peculiar behavior of Democrats on the budget and appropriations committees, in particular, should prompt some soul searching about whether the party has allowed a soft racism to take root in Congress.

SSA’s retirement program is far larger than its disability program, but SSA’s new data show how important Social Security’s disability program is to Black Americans. Among white folks, there are about 6.4 individuals in the retirement program for each one in the disability program. For Black Americans, because of underlying racial disparities in health, the figure is only 2.7.

Retirement benefits are also far easier to administer than disability benefits; thus, when Congress cuts SSA staff levels to the bone, many white and middle-class Americans merely suffer inconveniences. Black Americans suffer true hardship.

SSA’s new data indicate about one in every five Social Security disability beneficiaries is Black. That is roughly comparable to estimates from other sources that use survey measures of race. For example, using special data from administrative records matched to high-quality survey data, researchers at SSA found about 21 percent of Social Security disability beneficiaries are Black.

SSA needs to begin to aggressively use administrative records to document all aspects of the disability process for Black individuals, including the high denial rate. More than 25 percent of denied applicants are Black. It also needs to make the administrative records on race available to the public through its Disability Analysis File (DAF).

Some sunlight — through data releases, research, and presentations — will help expose dubious practices by the budget and appropriations committees.

Congress currently uses budget gimmicks to keep top-line spending numbers down. Specifically, congressional leaders adopt a tight top-line number for discretionary accounts, but exempt administrative spending on continuing disability reviews from top-line numbers. These disability reviews by SSA are a moneymaker for the government, but only because the most vulnerable groups (homeless individuals and those without representation) cannot navigate the process to keep their benefits.

This arrangement, where budget and appropriation committees agree to give SSA desperately needed administrative funds so long as SSA agrees to remove vulnerable individuals from the disability rolls, strikes me as fundamentally corrupt and almost certainly discriminatory.

SSA has not released administrative data on race for the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, but survey data exists, and it reinforces the discrimination that appears to be at work in the appropriations and budget process.

Black children make up 37 percent of the disabled children on SSI. Black adults make up 33 percent of the disabled adults on SSI. Applications and awards for SSI benefits collapsed during the pandemic, and a budget-starved SSA has little ability to right the ship.

The appropriations and budget committees have failed to provide SSA with resources for outreach and case processing. These committees are simply content with a scandalous and — frankly — racist outcome: hundreds of thousands of disabled individuals, who are disproportionately black, go without needed benefits.

Disturbing outcomes extend to other programs administered by SSA. The agency’s newly released data indicate 21 percent of Social Security child beneficiaries are Black, a figure that is consistent with other data. SSA has publicly acknowledged not paying perhaps hundreds of thousands of Social Security child benefits, which is yet another scandalous outcome potentially tinged with racism.

SSA’s administrative problems are the result of many political failures. In particular, the Democrats’ acquiescence to deep budget cuts to the discretionary accounts in exchange for raising the debt ceiling during the Obama administration led to a decade of decline in the federal government’s ability to provide help to vulnerable populations.

Democrats stated they were going to reverse those cuts last year with the adoption of President Biden’s budget. But, at the last minute, they abandoned that fight and cut nearly $1 billion in customer service funds for SSA from the President’s budget.

The Republicans have won so many budget battles over the discretionary accounts they have had to tone down their gloating. After muscling in his priorities in last year’s budget decisions, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) simply said, “I’m not unhappy.”

One issue that unifies a somewhat fractured Republican party is the desire to cut domestic spending. Republican leaders have recently stated they intend to use the debt ceiling again as a tool to force additional cuts in domestic spending.

Federal agencies, such as SSA, face a perfect storm: low levels of current funding locked in by a continuing resolution, rapidly growing costs due to inflation, and a potential return of a political climate where aggressive Republicans force — and passive Democrats allow — even further budget cuts.

The soft racism in the government’s spending process is, unfortunately, likely to continue, but it is useful to consider three approaches that could lead to improvements.

First, it would be useful for the appropriators to publish detailed tables in their summary reports of legislation that show the experience of Black individuals in all stages of SSA’s disability programs (application, award/denial, termination, and case processing times) and how the appropriators plan to address racial inequities. This may not eliminate the soft racism that currently exists, but it will make it harder to keep it a secret, which may ultimately bring about change.

Second, SSA officials need to engage new groups in Congress through briefings and presentations using their newly released data. These new groups should include the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus. 

With a return to divided government, spending decisions are likely to be made at the leadership and presidential level, with the final agreements satisfying different political blocs. President Biden will almost certainly focus on spending for Ukraine; the Republicans will support increased defense spending, and appropriators will focus on small-ball earmarks or projects they can tout to voters in their districts. 

SSA needs to find new champions in Congress who understand the importance of Social Security’s disability programs to Black Americans and who are willing to actually expend political capital to ensure that Black Americans are fully served by these programs.

Finally, The Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which has tremendous influence on the details of budget bills, needs to actually step onto the field. Black voters literally salvaged President Biden’s political career during the Democratic primary in South Carolina in the 2020 election. SSA is not a cabinet-level agency, and President Biden may not focus on these issues, but it is certainly reasonable to think his officials at OMB would insist on fair treatment of Black Americans.

David A. Weaver, Ph.D., is an economist and retired federal employee who has authored a number of studies on the Social Security program. His views do not reflect the views of any agency.

Tags Black Americans budget cuts Congressional Black Caucus Congressional Progressive Caucus Disability Disability benefits Federal budget Joe Biden Racial disparities racism in America Racism in the United States Richard Shelby Social Security Social Security Administration Social Security benefits social security cuts Social Security Disability Insurance Social Security numbers Social Security reform structural racism

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