On April 14, 2022, the Social Security Administration (SSA) released the agency’s Equity Action Plan in Agreement with EO 13985. The plan is issued in response to an Executive Order (EO) 13985, signed on January 20, 2021 by President Biden, directing all federal agencies “to pursue a comprehensive approach to advancing equity for all including people of color and other people who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”
Under the EO, SSA was required to conduct an assessment of its programs and within one year provide a plan for advancing equity, including a plan to address barriers to enrollment in and access to benefits and services in its programs. In connection with the EO, the Office of Management and Budget issued a request for information last year and many legal services organizations submitted comments. SSA’s plan was publicized in conjunction with a larger rollout by the White House.
The plan identifies several strategies to advance equity. A primary area of focus of both advocates and the plan has been the collection of data on race and ethnicity. Changes in SSA’s enumeration process have led to a reduction in demographic data. Advocates have been calling on SSA to address a failure to make this information available. SSA has begun to now collect this data on a voluntary basis during the Social Security Number (SSN) card application process. SSA will also begin publishing data by race and ethnicity more broadly, including in its Annual Statistical Supplement, and conduct projections and models for race and ethnic groups with earnings, benefit amounts, income poverty, health, and wealth. Changes to the enumeration and other processes also include revisions to its policies toward the designation of sex for new SSN card applications.
The plan recognizes the disparities in outcomes experienced by unrepresented claimants and announces steps to support those individuals. Efforts include enhanced outreach to unrepresented claimants, targeted denial reviews at the reconsideration stage, implicit bias training, research and analysis toward sources of bias and factors that contribute to accessing representation, and working with the representative community to find ways, such as increasing the maximum fees available, to increase levels of representation.
The plan also recognizes the structural barriers such as discrimination that result in a lower benefit levels and participation in the Social Security disability (SSD) program compared to Supplemental Security Income (SSI). At the same time, the overly complex rules for SSI and the barriers to communicating with SSA result in a significant administrative burden in applying for SSI and remaining in pay. To address this, and also in response to EO 14058, Transforming Federal Customer Experience and Service Delivery To Rebuild Trust in Government, issued December 13, 2021, SSA will explore establishing a Customer Experience office, simplify forms and procedures, and seek data-sharing opportunities to limit the burden on claimants to provide information. As discussed on page 6 of this newsletter, the agency has launched a new online protective filing tool, and has an online SSI application process and new website in development.