SSA Benefit Estimate Statement:

Adding Rate of Return Information May Not Be Appropriate

HEHS-98-228: Published: Sep 2, 1998. Publicly Released: Sep 2, 1998.

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Cynthia Maher Fagnoni
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the recent proposal that would require the Social Security Administration (SSA) to place on the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statements (PEBES) an individualized estimate of the rates of return workers receive on their contributions to the Social Security program, focusing on the: (1) general implications of using a rate of return for social security; and (2) challenges of including this information on the PEBES.

GAO noted that: (1) there is substantial disagreement about whether the rate of return concept should be applied to the Social Security program; (2) supporters of such an application point out that a rate of return would provide individuals information about the return they receive on their contributions to the program; (3) however, others contend that it is inappropriate to use rate of return estimates for social security because the program is designed to pursue social insurance goals, such as ensuring that low-wage earners have adequate income in their old age or that dependent survivors are adequately provided for; (4) in addition, calculations for rates of return rely on a number of assumptions that affect the resulting estimates; (5) for individuals, the actual rates of return can vary substantially from the estimates due to various uncertainties, such as a worker's actual retirement age and future earnings; (6) to be clearly understood, the underlying assumptions and their effect on the estimates should be explained in any presentation of rate of return information; (7) furthermore, comparing rate of return estimates for social security with estimates for private investments could be difficult for various reasons; (8) for example, the comparisons would need to indicate whether the estimates for other investments include the transaction and administrative costs and the differences in risk associated with the social security trust funds and private investments; (9) providing rate of return information on the PEBES could further complicate and lengthen an already complex and difficult-to-understand statement; (10) in GAO's previous work, it concluded that the current PEBES is too long and its explanations of social security's complex programs are not easy for the public to understand; and (11) adding rate of return estimates to the PEBES would require detailed explanations about how the calculations were made and what assumptions were used about comparing a rate of return for social security with rates for private investments.

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