Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

When Every Dollar Counts: Comparing Reported Earnings of Social Security Disability Program Beneficiaries in Survey and Administrative Records

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

When Every Dollar Counts: Comparing Reported Earnings of Social Security Disability Program Beneficiaries in Survey and Administrative Records

Article excerpt


The Social Security Administration (SSA) aims to make the best use of administrative and survey data for research and program operations, particularly in measuring employment and earnings. Both sources offer advantages in monitoring program operations, capturing beneficiary characteristics, and measuring the effects of demonstration projects. However, information on how the sources might produce differing estimates is limited. A better understanding of these differences might be critical to identifying important evaluation outcome measures and/or designing interventions to customize supports for SSA disability program beneficiaries.

This article compares employment and earnings outcomes for disability program beneficiaries based on linked data from SSA's National Beneficiary Survey

(NBS) and administrative records from the agency's Master Earnings File (MEF). NBS respondents are a nationally representative sample of people who received benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance (DI), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or both. We use NBS data to construct annual measures of employment and earnings for 2003 through 2005 that we then compare with linked annual employment and earnings reports in the MEF (which are not accessible to the general public). We present detailed comparisons of survey and administrative data on employment and earnings for DI beneficiaries, comprising those who receive DI benefits only and those who receive DI and SSI benefits concurrently. We also summarize similar comparisons for individuals who receive SSI payments but no DI benefits, and present detailed tables for that population in Appendix A.

Selected Abbreviations

DI   Disability Insurance
MEF  Master Earnings File
NBS  National Beneficiary Survey
SSA  Social Security Administration
SSI  Supplemental Security Income

We find that employment rates and earnings levels are higher in administrative records than in survey reports for SSA disability program beneficiaries overall and for all major sociodemographic subgroups. The proportional differences between the administrative and survey records can be substantial because the employment rates of DI and SSI beneficiaries are low. For example, employment rates for DI beneficiaries in our sample were about 40 percent higher in administrative records than in survey data, although the absolute difference is only 5.6 percentage points (19.2 percent versus 13.6 percent). Among subgroups, we find that the largest relative differences between administrative and survey data are for beneficiaries with survey-reported employment rates and earnings levels that are lower than the average survey-reported employment rate and earnings level of DI beneficiaries overall. For example, the survey and administrative data differ significantly for beneficiaries with a musculoskeletal primary disabling condition, (1) and that subgroup's employment rate and earnings are considerably lower than those of DI beneficiaries overall. Absolute differences between two relatively low employment rates or earnings levels would thus be proportionally greater than similar absolute differences among subgroups with higher employment rates or earnings.


Measuring employment outcomes poses challenges for both survey and administrative data collection. Several studies suggest using both survey and administrative data to identify potential underreporting associated with one source or the other (Abowd and Stinson 2011; Barnow and Greenberg 2014; Ford and others 2014). Using both sources can be especially advantageous for data on subpopulations that may be underrepresented or prone to reporting error in one of the sources. As Davies and Fisher (2009) noted, researchers have used matched survey and administrative data to assess the accuracy of the survey data and used the resulting information to adjust for error in the survey-based estimates. …

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