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Social Security says it's improving a major practice called unfair by critics. Here's what to know.

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The Social Security Administration on Monday said it is making a major change that could help more people qualify for disability benefits. 

The change involves a practice used by the program to determine whether a disability applicant could, in fact, find another job based on their abilities, which could result in a rejection of benefits.

To make that determination, the SSA relies on a jobs database to suss out if there are any jobs the applicant can still perform. But critics have called the database unfair and flawed, given that it was last updated in 1977 and includes dozens obsolete occupations.

Those occupations include reptile farmer, railroad telegrapher and watch repairer — jobs SSA said will now be stricken from the database. The decision comes after the Washington Post highlighted the case of a disability applicant who had worked as an electrician, but was rejected after a judge determined he could find a job as a nut sorter, a dowel inspector or an egg processor, all occupations that effectively no longer exist.

"It makes sense to identify occupations that now exist in very limited numbers in the national economy," said Martin O'Malley, commissioner of Social Security, said in a statement. "By making this update, our decision-makers will no longer cite these jobs when denying a disability application."

The changes will apply to both the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. The former pays benefits to people who can't work because they have a medical condition that will last at least one year or which is expected to result in death. The latter program is aimed at disabled people who also have low incomes.

Both Social Security's and the Department of Veterans Affairs' disability programs have been deemed "high risk" by the Government Accountability Office, a term that it applies to federal programs that are vulnerable to fraud, waste, abuse, or need an overhaul to address their effectiveness. Both programs use "outdated criteria to decide whether individuals qualify for benefits," the GAO said in an April study.

The change is "huge," wrote Anansi Wilson, a law professor at the Mitchell Hamline School of Law, on Monday on X, the former Twitter. "More work to be done but HUGE especially for disabled people of color who are more likely to be denied. Hoping for immediate relief for the thousands in court now!"

What are the jobs getting dropped?

The Social Security Administration said it's dropping 114 occupations from the database, which includes more than 12,000 types of jobs. SSA adjudicators can no longer use a "not disabled" decision in an applicant's case by citing any of these jobs as an example of work they could perform, the agency said.

Some of the jobs that are getting dropped include:

  • Canary breeder
  • Character impersonator
  • Directory assistance operator
  • Historian of the dramatic arts
  • Motion-picture projectionist
  • News wire-photo operator
  • Radiotelegraph operator
  • Reptile farmer
  • Watch repairer

The Social Security Administration said that it will now only consider the most relevant occupations when deciding when someone who is applying for disability benefits can hold other jobs.

The changes will "will ease life for millions," the Levin Center for Oversight and Democracy wrote on X on Monday. 

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