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


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.


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.d. c).4

As a result, individuals were able to review and, where necessary, initiate corrections to their earnings records. Individuals desiring to review their earnings records would visit a local field office and fill out the postcard-sized Wage Statement Request form, providing information including Social Security number and date of birth. Upon receiving the form, SSA would mail a copy of the worker's earnings history to the address listed on the postcard. If there were any discrepancies between the SSA earnings record and the worker's personal records, the worker could visit the local SSA field office with the appropriate information-such as W-2 forms, old pay stubs, or other documentation from an employer-to correct the errors (SSAB 2009).

From the 1960s to the early 1980s, SSA considered, and in some cases implemented, programs to provide more information to workers about their benefits. In May 1962, SSA initiated the "leads" program, which involved sending letters to older insured workers who had not yet claimed benefits, to inform them of their entitlement to benefits (SSA n. …

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