Social Security Administration:

SSA's Letters to the Public Remain Difficult to Understand

T-HEHS-00-205: Published: Sep 26, 2000. Publicly Released: Sep 26, 2000.

Additional Materials:


Barbara D. Bovbjerg
(202) 512-5491


Office of Public Affairs
(202) 512-4800

Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed the letters the Social Security Administration (SSA) sends to the public, focusing on: (1) awarding Social Security benefits; (2) adjusting Social Security benefits; (3) awarding Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Program, benefits; and (4) adjusting SSI benefits.

GAO noted that: (1) GAO's work showed that the majority of letters in each of the four categories GAO reviewed did not clearly communicate at least one of the following key points: (a) SSA's decision; (b) the basis for SSA's decision; (c) the financial effect of SSA's decision on payments to the individual; or (d) the recourse the individual could take in response to SSA's decision; (2) the lack of clarity was caused by one or more problems, such as illogically sequenced information, incomplete or missing explanations, contradictory information, and confusing numerical information; (3) an unclear explanation of the basis for SSA's decision was the most widespread problem among the four categories of letters; (4) GAO also found one particular group of SSI award letters in which none of the four key points was clear; (5) SSA acknowledges that these letters contain the problems GAO identified and agreed the problems have existed for years; (6) however, for many of the problems, the agency has not taken any corrective action and, overall, the agency has not placed a high priority on improving its letters; (7) many of the problems GAO identified are not amenable to quick fixes but, rather, will require a comprehensive revision of the language in the letters and rewriting the agency's software applications that generate them; (8) competing demands for computer systems resources have led SSA to repeatedly reschedule improvements to the Social Security benefit adjustment letters, and a pending nationwide court case has led SSA to delay improvements to the SSI award and benefit adjustment letters; (9) SSA recently announced plans to improve its Social Security benefit adjustment letters and has begun a major initiative to improve its SSI award and benefit adjustment letters; and (10) but it will be years before the improvements are completed for most of these letters, even if there are no more delays and SSA adheres to its current plans.

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