On May 5, 2021, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued a request for information (RFI) seeking input on methods to assess and advance equity in federal agencies. 86 Fed. Reg. 24029 (May 5, 2021). The comment period closed July 6, 2021, with close to 600 submissions.
The request was issued in connection with recent Executive Order 13985 directing all agencies to assess and advance equity in their programs. See January 2021 issue of this newsletter. Agencies must report to OMB by August 2021 with an assessment and by January 2022 with a plan to address issues. Social Security Administration (SSA) staff has stated that it has established a team charged with responding to the EO but they have not shared any details.
The RFI adopted the terms “equity” and “underserved communities” as defined in EO 13985:
The term ‘‘equity’’ means the consistent and systematic fair, just, and impartial treatment of all individuals, including individuals who belong to underserved communities that have been denied such treatment, such as women and girls; Black, Latino, and Indigenous and Native American persons, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and other persons of color; persons facing discrimination or barriers on account of gender identity; members of religious minorities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) persons; persons with disabilities; persons who live in rural areas; and persons otherwise adversely affected by persistent poverty or inequality.
The term ‘‘underserved communities’’ refers to populations sharing a particular characteristic, as well as geographic communities, that have been systematically denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic, social, and civic life, as exemplified by the list in the preceding definition of ‘‘equity.’’
The RFI was broad in scope and sought input in four specific areas: (1) equity assessments and strategies; (2) barrier and burden reduction; (3) procurement and contracting; (4) financial assistance; and (5) stakeholder and community engagement.
While broadly focused on all agencies, the RFI was an opportunity to provide feedback on many issues encountered in the Social Security disability context. Empire Justice Center and Legal Services NYC submitted comments on behalf of the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) with input regarding many barriers encountered by DAP clients statewide. For equity assessments and strategies, the comments noted the importance of data as crucial to being able to detect, investigate, and address problems. Advocates have been calling on SSA to resume reporting race and ethnicity data. See October 2020 issue of this newsletter. The comments also noted the importance of examining budgets for inequities.
With respect to barriers to access, the comments discussed broadly the harm that results from the imbalance of program integrity versus ensuring program access, and the ways in which the imbalance is fueled by negative stereotypes. More specifically, the comments identified the following barriers that result in inequitable access to benefits: overly complex SSI rules and outdated benefit levels; lack of in-person services; implicit bias and the inadequacy of SSA’s complaint systems; the need for trauma-informed services; digital exclusion (see also page 14 about comments submitted to ACUS on this topic); and the disparities that carry over from the systems adjacent to the disability process, such as the criminal justice, educational, and healthcare systems.
Many other organizations filed comments related to SSA’s disability programs, including Community Legal Services (CLS), Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, Social Security Works, and Justice in Aging. As reported in the January 2021 issue of this newsletter, CLS had previously published a report examining racial inequalities in the children’s SSI program.