Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Social Security Statement: Background, Implementation, and Recent Developments

Academic journal article Social Security Bulletin

The Social Security Statement: Background, Implementation, and Recent Developments

Article excerpt

This article provides the first comprehensive description of the substantial effort and resources involved in developing and implementing the annual earnings and benefit statement that the Social Security Administration (SSA) began mailing in 2000 to all workers aged 25 or older. Details about the statement's background and implementation should be useful to researchers studying the statement's effect on workers' retirement decisions and knowledge of the program. The article also describes the suspension of the printed version of the statement in March 2011 to conserve agency funds, the launch of the online statement in May 2012, various efforts to reinstate statement mailings, and the decision to resume mailings to workers of selected ages beginning in September 2014. The article concludes by describing changes in the statement's appearance and content, the statement's relationship to SSA's strategic plans, and the surveys SSA commissioned to measure public awareness and knowledge of Social Security.

Selected Abbreviations

OBRA Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act

PEBES Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement

SSA Social Security Administration

Introduction

In 1995, the Social Security Administration (SSA) began mailing annual earnings and benefit statements to workers in selected age groups. The purpose of these statements is threefold: to inform workers about their Social Security benefits, to help workers plan for their financial future, and to ensure that workers' earnings records are accurate. Initially, the statement was known as the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement (PEBES) and was sent only to workers nearing retirement. By 2000, it was renamed the Social Security Statement (or, simply, the Statement) and sent to all workers aged 25 or older.1 It was the largest customized mailing ever undertaken by a federal agency (SSA n.d. a).

Although the statement represented a historic effort and required substantial resources and manpower, no comprehensive description of its development and implementation exists. This article provides such a description (along with the statement's implementation schedule), which may be useful to researchers studying the statement's effect on workers' retirement decisions and knowledge of the program.

The article first describes SSA's initiatives to inform individuals about their earnings and benefits before Congress mandated an automatically issued statement. It then presents the statement's implementation schedule, as included in the authorizing legislation and as modified by SSA. It describes how the agency phased in automatic mailings and how it responded to budgetary constraints by suspending the mailing of the printed version of the statement in 2011 and launching an online version in 2012.2 It also discusses the agency's decision to resume mailing the Statement to workers of selected ages in 2014. The article next describes how the statement's content and appearance have changed, and how the statement relates to SSA's strategic plans. It concludes by highlighting findings of the surveys SSA commissioned to measure public knowledge and understanding of Social Security and of the Statement itself. Appendices present a chronology summarizing the statement's history along with samples of the Statement and accompanying inserts.

Background

Although the statement brought earnings and benefits information directly to workers, access to earnings records had been available to workers since soon after the program began in 1935. The Social Security Act Amendments of 1939 stated that the Social Security Board (precursor to SSA) "shall establish and maintain records of the amounts of wages paid to each individual...and, upon request, shall inform any individual...of the amounts of wages of such individual and the periods of payments shown by such records at the time of such request."3 On October 8, 1940, the Social Security Board established regulations governing, among other things, the revision of wage records by individuals (SSA n. …

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