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Applicants for Social Security Disability benefits whose applications have twice been rejected can appeal that decision to one of the agency’s administrative law judges (ALJs). The appeals process is heavily weighted in the applicant’s favor: the agency is not represented in the appeal hearing, all government employees participating in the hearing have a duty to assist the applicant, the ALJ himself does not have medical expertise, and as a practical matter ALJ decisions are final. As a result, appellants have an extremely high success rate before ALJs, even though agency analyses indicate that a large number of these successful appellants are not disabled under the law. The cost of ALJ-awarded disability benefits is remarkably high: in 2011 they equaled 2 percent of total federal spending and 6 percent of the budget deficit. This paper examines these ALJ decisions, their costs, evidence that many of these decisions are not supported by law, and considers a number of proposals to reform the system.

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