Social Security Statements: Social Security Administration Should Better Evaluate Whether Workers Understand Their Statements

GAO-05-192 Published: Apr 01, 2005. Publicly Released: Apr 01, 2005.
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The Social Security Statement is the federal government's main document for communicating with more than 140 million workers about their Social Security benefits. By law, the statement must show an individual's annual earnings, payments into Social Security and Medicare, and projected benefits. The Social Security Administration also uses the statement to explain the various types of Social Security benefits and to encourage greater financial planning for retirement. GAO conducted a review to examine (1) how well recipients understand the current statement, (2) how the Social Security Administration is evaluating the statement's understandability, and (3) the promising practices used by private sector companies and other industrial countries. GAO's information was obtained from its national survey and focus groups of statement recipients, a firm that evaluates benefit statements, officials from three other countries (Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom), and other experts from the private sector.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration On the basis of the data it receives and a review of promising practices in the private sector and other countries, SSA should consider revising the statement. These revisions could include showing the personalized benefit information first, using graphics to aid readers in quickly comprehending information or providing information to help recipients understand Social Security's contribution to their total retirement income.
Closed – Implemented
SSA incorporated changes into the Statement that included moving personalized information to the top of the two inside pages to make it easier for the recipient to identify quickly. SSA also revised the insert for workers who are 55 and older to add more information, make it more appealing visually, and include a chart to show the value of benefits at different ages. SSA has also developed a new insert for young workers age 25-35 that includes important financial, age-appropriate information, which includes graphics to enhance the visual appeal.
Social Security Administration SSA should develop a plan for regularly evaluating the statement through the collection of data from multiple sources, including information from surveys, focus groups, call centers, walk-in traffic, and its Web site.
Closed – Implemented
SSA has developed a plan for evaluating its Statement. The plan has been implemented over the past several years and included four phases. Phase one, which took place from October 2005 to April 2008, consisted of focus groups that tested the Statement's content and format design. In phase two, SSA and a contractor conducted a survey in June 2008 to determine whether the Statement met SSA's objectives and to create a baseline for evaluating subsequent changes to the Statement. A final report of findings from the survey was completed in September 2008 and provided to officials in SSA's Office of Communications (OComm) for consideration in revisions to the Statement. The third phase reviewed SSA's internal data to determine if changes were needed to the Statement, which addresses GAO's concern about the systematic collection of data. Specifically, OComm reviewed existing data sources and identified several that maintained Statement-related information. They implemented changes to ensure they regularly received the data regularly. They decide whether the data are useful and changes to the Statement are warranted. The fourth and last phase consists of ongoing tracking surveys of recent Statement recipients to measure the Statement's effectiveness and to identify problem areas. Results from these surveys are used to recommend possible changes to the Statement. The first tracking survey was completed on June 14, 2009 and its results are under review. The second tracking survey is scheduled to begin in September 2009.

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