Research and Analysis by Alexander Strand
Benefit Adequacy Among Elderly Social Security Retired-Worker Beneficiaries and the SSI Federal Benefit Rate
The federal benefit rate (FBR) of the Supplemental Security Income program provides an inflation-indexed income guarantee for aged and disabled people with low assets. Some consider the FBR as an attractive measure of Social Security benefit adequacy. Others propose the FBR as an administratively simple, well-targeted minimum Social Security benefit. However, these claims have not been empirically tested. Using microdata from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, this article finds that the FBR is an imprecise measure of benefit adequacy; it incorrectly identifies as economically vulnerable many who are not poor, and disregards some who are poor. The reason for this is that the FBR-level benefit threshold of adequacy considers the Social Security benefit in isolation and ignores the family consumption unit. The FBR would provide an administratively simple but poorly targeted foundation for a minimum Social Security benefit. The empirical estimates quantify the substantial tradeoffs between administrative simplicity and target effectiveness.
It is widely known that about three-fourths of the working-age population is insured for Disability Insurance (DI), but the substantial role played by the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program in providing disability benefit coverage is not well understood. Using data from the 1996 panel of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) we find that over one-third (36 percent) of the working-age population is covered by SSI in the event of a severe disability. Three important implications follow: (1) SSI increases the overall coverage of the working-age population; (2) SSI enhances the bundle of cash benefits available to disabled individuals; and (3) interactions with other public programs—most notably the SSI path to Medicaid coverage—also enhance the safety net. Ignoring these implications could lead to inaccurate inferences in analytic studies.
This article presents the distributional effects of changing the Social Security indexing scheme, with an emphasis on the effects upon disabled-worker beneficiaries. Although a class of reform proposals that would slow the rate of growth of initial benefit levels over time—including price indexing and longevity indexing—initially appear to affect all beneficiaries proportionally, there can be different impacts on different groups of beneficiaries. The impacts between and within groups are mitigated by (1) the offsetting effect of changes in Supplemental Security Income benefits at the lower tail of the income distribution, and (2) the dampening effect of other family income at the upper tail of the income distribution. The authors present estimates of the size of these effects.
The authors document the steps used by the Social Security Administration (SSA) and state Disability Determination Service (DDS) agencies to make initial determinations about eligibility for Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income. For both adults and children, SSA/DDSs record the basis for initial disability determinations using codes that correspond to the steps of the process. The resulting data element, the Regulation Basis Code, permits researchers to distinguish allowances based on the Listings from those based on medical/vocational factors for adults (or functional factors for children). It can also be used to identify denials based on severity, residual functional capacity, or other reasons.
Low Levels of Retirement Resources in the Near-Elderly Time Period and Future Participation in Means-Tested Programs
This article describes the de facto standards of low income and resources reflected in the eligibility standards of the largest means-tested programs that serve the elderly and then applies these standards to a near-elderly cohort. Through juxtaposing retirement resources in the near-elderly time period with program participation in the elderly time period, the author indirectly examines some of the changes between the two time periods that could affect program eligibility, including spend-down of resources and marital dissolution. Retirement resource levels are estimated using the Survey of Income and Program Participation, and subsequent participation in one of the means-tested programs—Supplemental Security Income (SSI)—is examined using matched administrative records.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) operates two programs that provide disability benefits: Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The Social Security Act and the regulations that implement it establish uniform national criteria for determining whether someone who applies for disability benefits under either program is disabled. However, an agency of the state in which the claimant lives makes the initial determination under contract to SSA and using SSA guidelines. Historically, states have allowed initial disability claims at rates that vary from one state to another, in some cases widely. This study estimates the amount of variation in allowance rates that is related to certain economic and demographic differences among states.