SSA Benefit Statements: Well Received by the Public But Difficult to Comprehend

HEHS-97-19 Published: Dec 05, 1996. Publicly Released: Dec 05, 1996.
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO reviewed the Social Security Administration's (SSA) overall progress in issuing the Personal Earnings and Benefits Estimate Statement (PEBES), focusing on: (1) whether the PEBES benefit estimates are reasonable; (2) what SSA has done to improve the statement; (3) the extent to which the statement communicates its goals and information clearly; (4) SSA plans to revise the statement further; and (5) actions that GAO believes will improve the statement.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Social Security Administration In order for the PEBES to better convey information to the public about SSA programs and benefits, SSA should revise the current statement to improve its layout and design and to simplify explanations.
Closed – Implemented
SSA has significantly changed the 1999 PEBES (for FY 2000 mailings), presenting the information about its program and benefits more clearly. It is now called the "Social Security Statement" and has been reduced from six to four pages. Overall, the statement reads more smoothly. It provides condensed and simplified explanations, has a more reader-friendly layout, makes better use of highlighting to indicate key points, and refers to other agency pamphlets and brochures for additional information. SSA pre-tested the statement and found that readers liked it more than the previous one.
Social Security Administration SSA should also evaluate and test alternative formats for communicating the information presented in the PEBES and the accompanying Commissioner's message.
Closed – Implemented
SSA held focus groups to gather input on the statement in late 1997. It then developed and tested through a mail survey four options for a new PEBES format and design. Based on public input, SSA selected the new "Social Security Statement," which provides condensed and simpler explanations in a four-page layout. Per SSA, the readers surveyed like the new statement better than the previous one.

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