I’m part of the generation that proposed that if you’re “not part of the solution you are part of the problem.” I’ve held onto that belief, since my teen years. In my professional life, I’ve worked in a dedicated way, as part of ‘The System’ to be part of ‘the solution’. In my new vocation as an advocate for the disabled, my faith in the system has been tested.
A client that I represent was recently denied an initial claim for disability benefits from Social Security. As a former disability examiner who made those type of determinations, for over 20 years, I’m angered by the decision. I take the decision to deny the claim personally. I know it to be a bad decision. THIS PERSON IS DISABLED UNDER SOCIAL SECURITY RULES!
What I fail to understand is why the adjudicative team that worked on the claim failed to reach the correct decision. Program policy demands that a person over 50 be given considerations that would not be afforded to a younger claimant. I do not believe that those considerations were given to in this particular case. From the onset of the adjudication of the claim, I had concerns. Most of the claimants I’ve represented have been reviewed by the local office here in Detroit. My client’s claim was sent out state because of the city in which the individual resides.
Each service area has its own professional idioms. The office in question is known to be very “efficient” which in my mind sometimes translates as “close cases as quickly as possible”! During the course of the investigation, I did not receive a piece of paper from the office on behalf of my claimant until I called and complained that I was not being noticed! At the end of the investigation, my worse suspicions came to fruition: an individual in dire need and from all appearances one that meets the criteria for disability was denied disability benefits!
In the past 18 months, my belief in ‘The System’ has become tarnished. The grief and instability that my clients suffer because of their disabling conditions are magnified because of my personal knowledge of the slovenly conduct of the some individuals that work in the Social Security ‘System’. Sometimes those individuals are unable to be the best professionals that they can be because of policy restrictions. Sometimes they are influenced by bad managers and in some instances they simply make bad judgements!
In 2005, the economy in Michigan was on a downward spiral. Workloads were increasing as the state workforce was decreasing. There is an axiom among us old school unionist that states “when problems arise scapegoating increases!” As backlogs climbed disability examiners were placed under increasing pressure to make faster decisions. While on the job in my position as a lead worker, I personally witnessed examiners being forced to close cases as the cases reached the 200 days. As a result, some claimants were treated unfairly in the name of efficiency! As part of the massive bureaucracy of the social security system, I had an obligation to my employer that would not in good conscience allow me to abrogate or circumvent my role as a disability examiner. I also had a moral and ethical obligation to serve our customers to the best of my abilities. I took my time with each case. I consciously resisted any coercion by managers to expedite cases in the name of efficiency! I consistently maintained a high backlog because I refused to take short cuts or perform in a way that might prevent each person from receiving full consideration on their claim. I was fortunate not have cases that consistently exceeded 200 days but many of my overwhelmed co-workers had high backlogs with cases over 6 months old.
The work that we performed as consultants to SSA was done on behalf of the Commissioner of Social Security. The Commissioner’s number one job is to ensure that the interest of customers is always preserved. I made a personal pledge at the beginning of my tenure to serve our customers to the best of my abilities. I resisted managers whose main concerns were keeping backlogs low while they ironically insisted that we make correct decisions! My years of experience taught me that it is not always possible to maintain a backlog based on some bureaucrats budgetary concerns while keeping one’s professional integrity in tact. And statistics have proven that there is no correlation between efficiency and quality when it comes to service delivery to consumers. That dichotomy sometimes causes many good employees to become cynical and disheartened. I decided that I would leave the agency before I allowed my point of view to be tainted. I decided in mid 2005 that it was time to leave the bureaucracy. As an employee, as a unionist, as a man, I was increasingly unable to support a system that seemed to be loosing sight of our mission: to advocate for the disabled.
Unfortunately, to some a job is just a job. I don’t feel that way. I stand on the shoulders of my parents who sacrificed their lives to ensure that I be able to sit at a desk in the white-collar world. I am mindful of that obligation to my parents each day as I perform my duties.
As a freshman in college, I was told that I had an obligation to serve that community that had nurtured me. I embraced that notion as part of a revolutionary consciousness that began in the inner cities in the last sixties. I came to understand that the “struggle of the people” had created a opportunities for me and thousands of others from communities like mine.
After I graduated from college, I volunteered in the community to give something back. I participated in Neighborhood Watch in the evenings, tutored at a middle school for the Partnership for Education during my lunch hour and later worked with Core City Neighborhoods to develop affordable housing for community members.
The late Dorothy Snead, one of my mentors, during my high school years, informed me that if I wanted to be a catalyst for change that I would be most effective if I worked within institutions (as opposed to standing on the outside and chucking stones!). I took her advice to heart. I worked diligently within the system for thirty years. In 2009, I felt that it was time to renew my obligation to the community that had propelled me forward. In my current profession, I am a full-time advocate for the disadvantaged and the disabled.
I have been reasonably successful in my efforts to bring stability to the lives of many people. I know that an individual can make a positive impact when they earnestly make an effort to uplift the community. It is an obligation to that community because some of us were afforded educational and economic opportunities that generations before us and many of our peers simply were not given. Because of that implied obligation, I take it personally when ‘The System’ that I was part of for 3 decades lets someone down. I know that everyone that makes up that ‘System’ is not always working at their potential which leads to problems that we read and hear about each day in the media.
We are currently working on an appeal of the denial of my client’s claim. At the appeal level, a claimant has a 70% chance of being allowed benefits.** Unfortunately, the appeal process may take 12-18 months! Most disabled people do not have the means to sustain themselves for that length of time without benefit of gainful activity.
There is no simple solution to problems like the one I am writing about. The Social Security system is overburdened. More money is going out of the system than is coming end. The Social Security system may be insolvent before the end of this calendar year. The workers that administer the program here in Michigan are overworked and the rate of accurate decision-making is at an all time low. It’s hard to be optimistic but I remain so.
As I question my faith in man my faith in GOD remains strong. I recently visited the church of a former co-worker called the FAITH CLINIC. I was witness to a faith that many people in our community have abandoned. The faith and dedication that I witnessed in that eastside church touched me, encouraged me and inspired me to remain faithful to my clients and ‘The Cause’ to ensure that ‘The System’ continues to work on behalf of the people. This is my pledge in writing to do so.
**statistic from “How To Get SSI And Social Security Disability”, by Mike Davis
post script. The judge reprimanded the DDS for its conduct and gave my client that could not remember that I was her rep, a fully favorable allowance. She gets to keep her house and no longer has to worry about having the means to entertain her grandbabies.