As early social welfare systems focused on means-tested assistance programs, individuals who received government benefits were often stigmatized. Even today, there are those who deem Social Security as money wasted on the indolent and irresponsible, and those asking to receive their benefits are sometimes viewed with loathing and contempt. Yet, our Congress was clear in defining the Social Security program. “Social Security is not a handout; it is not charity; it is not relief. It is an earned right based upon the contributions and earnings of the individual. As an earned right, the individual is eligible to receive his benefit in dignity and self-respect.”
Since 1956, Social Security has employed a non-adversary system for determining eligibility since disability benefits were added to the program in 1956. The entire administrative review process should be conducted in a non-adversarial manner. As Chief Administrative Law Judge Debra Bice commented, “for our hearing process to operate fairly, efficiently, and effectively, our ALJs must treat members of the public and staff with dignity and respect…” The words “dignity and respect” were also used by Carolyn Colvin, Acting Commissioner of Social Security, in a recent commentary on U.S. v. Windsor. “We remain committed to treating all Americans fairly, with dignity, and respect.” In theory, a statement of intent by the Acting Commissioner directs the policies and conduct at Social Security Administration.
Yet there can be times when agency officials do not adhere to policy, showing abuse of discretion, prejudice, and other misconduct. Aspersions and intimidation tactics should have no place in a non-adversarial hearing, as they undermine the intent of the Social Security Act and cast doubt upon the fairness of our government. Where there are allegations of unfairness, prejudice, partiality, bias, misconduct, or discrimination by an administrative law judge, SSR 13-1p outlines processes to address complaints. These procedures and policies exist to ensure that all claimants are treated fairly with dignity and respect throughout the entire hearing process.