The Social Security Administration

The Social Security Administration (SSA) is an independent agency of the federal government. It was created in 1935 as an important part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal program. Since that time the SSA at one point or other has touched the lives of almost all Americans — after the loss of a loved one, during the transition from work to retirement and at the onset of a disability that made employment impossible.

The SSA, with more than 66,000 fulltime employees, functions from its headquarters near Baltimore and in more than 1,300 offices all over the country.

A large proportion of all SSA programs — such as the monthly Social Security payments available to those who are 65 or older — are financed by mandatory contributions which employers, employees and self-insured persons are required to pay.

Another part of the SSA operations — also financed by mandatory contributions — is the disability insurance program that provides support for individuals who have lost their jobs because they are disabled.

A second group of benefit programs comes under what is called Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Unlike Social Security and disability insurance payments, the recipients of SSI are paid out of the general revenue of the United Sates and, in some cases, the states.

The complex process by which the government decides who is eligible for disability payments through the disability insurance and supplemental security income programs is the subject of this report.

Like the FBI and IRS, the SSA is headed by an official serving a six-year term, in this case Commissioner Michel J. Astrue. He was sworn into office in February of 2007. In his March 2011 testimony to a Senate Appropriations subcommittee, Commissioner Astrue sought to highlight the many different challenges faced by his agency, beginning with its distribution of more than $60 billion a month to just under 60 million individuals.

To achieve this and other goals, he said, the SSA in FY 2010 had served 45.4 million field office visitors, completed 67 million transactions over the telephone, verified over 1 billion Social Security numbers, issued 17.2 million new and replacement Social Security cards and mailed out 152 million Social Security statements.

One unusual aspect of the SSA is its very large system of "administrative law judges" (ALJs) who together make up what is considered one of the largest court systems in the world. Unlike (for example) the judges in federal district courts, these special judges are both full time SSA employees and, as spelled out in law, charged with making independent decisions about the merits and demerits of the individual cases that come to them.

This report has been supported by Syracuse University, the Park Foundation and the Rockefeller Family Fund. It focuses on only one aspect of the the SSA's numerous obligations: the processing of requests for disability payments. A second special report will be posted shortly on the ALJs. Because of the agency's special powers, vast size and unusual independence from outside review, we hope to obtain additional support to an expanded examination of the agency in the years ahead.