Vocational Factors of Age, Education, and Work Experience in the Adult Disability Determination Process

Testimony Jobs and Labor

Vocational Factors of Age, Education, and Work Experience in the Adult Disability Determination Process

November 14, 2015 8 min read
Rachel Greszler
Research Fellow in Economics, Budget and Entitlements
Rachel researches and analyzes taxes, Social Security, disability insurance, and pensions to promote economic growth.

Comments on the Social Security Administration (SSA) Proposed Rule: Vocational Factors of Age, Education, and Work Experience in the Adult Disability Determination Process. SSA-2014-0081

 

Introduction

The age and vocational factors come into play in determining whether or not an individual who can no longer perform their past work is able to adjust to other work. However, ability to adjust to work is really no different than the ability to do work. By the Social Security Administration’s own definition, an individual is not disabled if they are physically and mentally capable of performing any job in the national economy. If there is a job an individual can perform, how can he or she be unable to adjust to that job? 

The ability to adjust to other work has become a proxy, within the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, for the ability to obtain work. SSDI is for workers who are physical or mentally unable to work. A separate federal program—Unemployment Insurance (UI)—serves individuals who are unable to obtain work. As stated in the request for comments, the disability determination standards “do not consider an individual’s ability to obtain work.” Including vocational factors that are imprecisely correlated with individuals’ ability to adjust to other work conflates the two programs. 

Moreover, the vocational factors represent, at least in part, choices individuals make. By setting a lower bar on benefits for workers with less education and skills, the vocational factors discourage individuals from gaining education, skills, and literacy that will improve their job prospects and overall well-being. According to the vocational rules, individuals approaching advanced age (50–54) who are restricted to sedentary work will be found disabled if they lack transferable skills, but if they obtain an education that would allow them direct entry into sedentary work, they will not be found disabled.1 If anything, SSDI should require rather than deter individuals from taking positive steps towards employment.  

SSDI’s age and vocational factors represent correlation without causation and should be removed from the disability determination process, as should the determination of an individual’s ability to adjust to other work. Physical and mental capability alone should determine an individual’s ability to work. 

1. Is the factor of age predictive in determining an individual’s ability to work or to adjust to other work? If it is predictive, what are the vocationally significant age milestones we should consider? If it is not predictive, what data support that assertion?

Physical and mental factors determine individuals’ work capabilities. Age is often correlated with physically and mentally disabling conditions, but age alone cannot render a person disabled. 

Moreover, age is a continuum. By drawing a line in the sand along this continuum, the current rules arbitrarily classify individuals as either able or unable to work or adjust to other work. Under the existing rules, two individuals with otherwise identical physical and mental conditions could receive different disability determinations: a 45-year-old could be found disabled and a 44-year-old not, or a 50-year-old disabled and a 49-year-old not. 

There are plenty of 60-year-olds, 70-year-olds, and even 80-year-olds who are sharp as a tack and fit as a whistle. And, likewise, there are plenty of 20-year-olds, 30-year-olds, and 40-year-olds who are less sharp and physically fit than their elders. Ironically, federal law prohibits employers from discriminating in any aspect of employment based on age, but SSDI overtly discriminates on the basis of age. 

2. When determining if age affects an individual’s ability to work or to adjust to other work, what other factors or combination of factors should we consider?

Physical and mental capabilities are the only factors that should determine if an individual is disabled. Statistics cannot determine an individual’s ability to work or adjust to other work.  Only individual experiences can determine that ability. If an individual has tried to adjust to other work and has been physically or mentally unable to do so, the first stages of the disability determination process will declare that individual disabled.  

Moreover, allowing age and vocational factors to determine work ability opens the door to potentially other correlated factors, such as ethnicity, income level, and marital status to play a role. Rather than seek out the multitude of non-medical factors that may be correlated with disability, the determination process should focus exclusively on physical and mental ability. 

3. Does an individual’s educational level affect an individual’s ability to do work or to adjust to other work? If so, how?

Mental capacity, which is already factored into disability qualifications, affects an individual’s ability to perform or adjust to work, but education alone does not.

Education limits the number of jobs individuals are qualified to perform, but the standard for receiving disability benefits is the inability to perform any job in the national economy. Given the enormous number of jobs in the national economy across all different education levels, sufficient jobs exist even for individuals with less than a high school diploma.  

Additionally, education does not affect individuals’ ability to adjust to other work. Whereas the current educational factors assume individuals with lower education levels have a harder time adjusting to other work, the exact opposite could also be true. Someone with a PhD who spent their entire career in one position may be less capable of adjusting to other work than a high school dropout who has worked in 10 different jobs.      

What data support the conclusion that an individual’s educational level [or skill level, added from question 4 below] does or does not affect an individual’s ability to do work or to adjust to other work? 

The only data that is needed to support an individual’s ability to work or adjust to work is their physical and mental capability. Data on vocational and education factors can identify trends, but it cannot predict individual circumstances. There will always be individuals who defy the trends. The relatively loose vocational and, particularly, age factors create a large pool of work-capable individuals who nevertheless qualify for SSDI benefits. 

How does literacy affect an individual’s ability to do work or adjust to other work?

Literacy limits the number of jobs an individual can perform, but it does not prevent them from working or adjusting to other work. There are a large number of jobs in the economy, particularly in the growing services sector, that do not require literacy or for which a limited degree of literacy may be sufficient. Given the global economy in which we live, literacy in a language other than English may even provide an advantage. 

In addition, literacy is not a permanent condition; just as individuals can learn new skills, they can also learn to read and write or learn new languages. If an individual is mentally incapable of becoming literate, this is a mental disability that is already considered in the initial stages of disability determination.

Moreover, the mere claim that an individual is illiterate or unable to communicate in English is not sufficient to prove true actual illiteracy or inability to speak English.

4. Does the skill level of an individual’s past work affect his or her ability to adjust to other work? If so, how? 

Mental capacity, and not the skill level of past work, determines work capability. A significant number of unskilled jobs exist in the national economy, and unskilled jobs, by definition, do not require any skill that may come from past work.

Likewise, individuals’ past skills do not determine their ability to adjust to other work. A highly skilled brain surgeon or superstar athlete could have a harder time adjusting to answering phones or entering data than an unskilled deliveryman.      

How does the skill level of an individual’s past work considered along with an individual’s educational level affect this adjustment?

Just as neither education nor skill alone affect the ability to perform or adjust to any job in the national economy, the combination of the two together does not determine work capability. Skill and education are correlated, but individuals with high education can nevertheless choose to perform low-skill jobs and workers with very low education can rise to very high-skill jobs. Including skill or education in disability determinations unjustly classifies many capable individuals as disabled.   

5. Are there other vocational factors or combinations of vocational factors that we should consider when determining an individual’s ability to do work or to adjust to other work?

No. Causation—not correlation—should be the standard for inclusion in disability determinations and only physical and mental capabilities cause disability.

Assessing an individual’s ability to perform substantial gainful activity that exists in the national economy necessarily requires a subjective determination process because no two disabled individuals are alike. Yet, the age and vocational factors attempt to add objective measures to the subjective determination process. This allows many individuals who would not qualify for SSDI benefits on the basis of their physical and mental capabilities alone to nevertheless receive benefits. 

Social Security should eliminate the existing grid rules and base disability determinations exclusively on physical and mental capability to perform work.       

In addition to seeking public input on the specific questions below, we are also asking for public assistance to help identify research and data to assist us.

We do not need research to establish that the act of turning 55 does not make a person disabled or unable to adjust to a new job. Likewise, a lack of education or training in and of itself does not render an individual disabled or unable to adjust to a new job. Age, education, and skill level are all correlated with individuals’ likelihood of applying for and receiving disability insurance benefits, but these factors exhibit correlation without causation.    

Disabilities are unique in nature—even two individuals with the exact same diagnosis often have very different physical and mental capabilities. Each individual who files for disability benefits typically submits hundreds of pages of supporting medical records and provides their own personal testimony. This personal evidence is necessary to determine each individual’s capabilities.

While a subjective measure of disability is not perfect, it is nonetheless more appropriate and accurate than objective measures. Disability is a state of being that includes many interrelated factors. Some of these factors are relevant to physical and mental capability and some are not, but what is relevant varies from person to person. A grid that considers only limited measurable factors cannot possibly determine the ability for certain individuals to work or adjust to a different type of work.    

For example, the following individuals with exceptional physical and mental capabilities would nonetheless receive a leg-up in the disability determination process over individuals who are younger or have more education:

  • Olga Kotelko continued competing in track and field competitions into her 90s, and more than 54,000 “advanced age” men and women (55 and older) completed marathons in 2013. 
  • Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, John Mackey (Whole Foods CEO), and Governor Scott Walker (R–WI) all lack a college degree.
  • Abraham Lincoln left school at age 12 to work on his family farm and Walt Disney dropped out of school at age 16. 

These individuals are outliers in their capabilities, but they nevertheless show that objective standards cannot pinpoint individual outcomes. 

SSA should eliminate the broad-sweeping and discriminatory vocational standards from the disability determination process and focus exclusively on physical and mental factors that directly impact work capabilities. 

ENDNOTES:

[1]SSA, Code of Federal Regulations, Appendix 2 to Subpart P of Part 404—Medical-Vocational Guidelines, 201.00 (g), https://www.ssa.gov/OP_Home/cfr20/404/404-app-p02.htm (accessed November 4, 2015).

Authors

Rachel Greszler
Rachel Greszler

Research Fellow in Economics, Budget and Entitlements