Clinic Dean and Professor Jon Dubin is one of the nation’s leading scholars and authorities on social security disability law with multiple articles on the subject cited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
He has supervised hands-on clinical practice with hundreds of clinical law students on behalf of hundreds of low-income social security and SSI disability claimants over the past 30 years in successful litigation ranging from fast-paced administrative evidentiary hearings to formal appeals before the federal courts including at the U.S. Courts of Appeals and the U.S Supreme Court. He has been elected into the National Academy of Social Insurance, appointed to the Administrative Conference of the United States, Social Security Disability Adjudication Working Group, and provided solicited testimony to Congress on proposed changes to the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) adjudication process.
His new book Social Security Disability Law and the American Labor Market explores questions arising from his writings and clinical practice, including: Where are the jobs for people with medical and vocational challenges, typically lower income, lower skilled workers who seek social security disability or SSI disability benefits? And how does the SSA misfire in its efforts to determine disability eligibility based on its approach to that question and in proposals for eligibility-restrictive policy change?
Below, Dean Dubin talks more about his book.
What led you to write this book?
Several factors provided impetus for this book. About 21 years ago, I argued a Rutgers clinic case in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit that involved assumptions administrative law judges (ALJs) make about the limited impact of mental and non-strength based limitations on unskilled jobs in the economy available for persons with physical impairments. While the court ruled for our client, it did not meaningfully address the underlying issue of the agency’s systematic reliance on unsupported, antiquated, and unreliable information about the low-skill American labor market.
Over the next 16 or so years, a few prominent labor economists and media sources from both conservative and liberal sources such as the Cato Institute, National Public Radio, Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal, produced papers or media profiles, decrying the explosion of disability claims and beneficiaries. They attributed a growth in the roles to an overly generous statutory standard that considered not only medical limitations but also age, education, work experience and availability of jobs in significant numbers for persons with combined medical and vocational challenges.
I wrote a few law review articles in response to aspects of these developments. Then, the SSA proposed changing the law through rulemaking to consider tightening the standard by reducing reliance on non-medical factors. Later, the eventual SSA Deputy Commissioner for Disability Policy appointed by President Trump, recommending adoption of more restrictive disability rule changes. When it appeared that the Deputy Commissioner’s recommendations turned into a formal proposal for significant policy change, I pulled together my research and writings over several years, more fully immersed myself in the emerging literature, empirical studies and varying perspectives on the topic, and produced this book.
Who is the audience for this book?
I wrote this for social security/social welfare policy wonks, government officials, courts, journalists and media sources writing/reporting about the topic, and, of course, legal organizations and lawyers representing low-income persons with disabilities.
Why is this book timely or relevant now?
Apart from the emerging studies and profiles and the recent administration proposal for significant restrictive disability policy change, there is emerging data on the characteristics of the American labor market relevant to some of the underlying questions addressed in the book and in alternative proposals for law and policy change.
The Supreme Court issued its first decision on the adjudication of labor market factors and vocational expert evidence in 2019, and left many unanswered legal and interpretive questions. Some of these issues I sought to address and include as part of my thesis and recommendations. This includes some of the most complex and vexing present-day pressing issues in mass justice decision making in the SSA which has been described as the “largest system of administrative adjudication in the western world.” It has annual cases numbering in the millions, and has more ALJs deciding SSA cases than all judges in the federal judiciary holding trials in all of the annual civil and criminal cases in the country.
Finally, the substantially diminished safety net for low-income persons over the past 25 years—after the “ending of welfare as we knew it” in 1996—has rendered the SSA disability programs, the only ongoing income-support survival alternatives for many. It is their only protection against homelessness, hunger, malnutrition and other extreme hardships of deep poverty for those unable to survive in the labor market because of significant medical and vocational adversities.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
The 21st century American Labor Market and trends over the past half century—i.e. transformation from an industrial economy to a service economy in the information age and resulting diminished demand for work requiring arduous physical labor—have not meaningfully reduced the relevance of or need for the social security disability benefits programs. They have created new and different obstacles to work adjustments based on the need for other skills, capacities and flexibility in the new economy, especially for the significant portion of claimants with cognitive, psychiatric, neuropsychological, or other mental impairments.
Second, it should be manifest that the SSA makes thousands of decisions each year denying these life-support benefits based on labor market work adjustment assessments that are currently legally and empirically unsupportable. Finally, there are a number of steps SSA can and should take to restore integrity, consistency and fairness to the program as a matter of policy, legal interpretive guidance and training, systemic agency adjudication practices, and empirical data production and taxonomic development.
Where can people get the book?
You can buy the book in hard copy or digital form from all of the usual booksellers, or directly from the publisher, New York University Press.