Benefit adequacy among elderly Social Security retired-worker beneficiaries and the SSI federal benefit rate

Soc Secur Bull. 2007;67(3):29-51.


Both target effectiveness and administrative simplicity are desirable properties in the design of minimum benefit packages for public retirement programs. The federal benefit rate (FBR) of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program has been proposed by some analysts as a potentially attractive basis of establishing a new minimum benefit for Social Security on both of these grounds. This type of proposal is related to a broader array of minimum benefit proposals that would establish a Social Security benefit floor based on the poverty rate. In contrast to Social Security, the SSI program is means tested, including both an income and asset screen and also a categorical eligibility screen (the requirement to qualify as aged or disabled). The SSI FBR provides an inflation-adjusted, guaranteed income floor for aged and disabled people with low assets. The FBR has been perceived by proponents as a minimal measure of Social Security benefit adequacy because it represents a subpoverty income level for a family of one or two depending on marital status. For this same reason it has been seen as a target-effective tool of designing a minimum Social Security benefit. An FBR-based minimum benefit has also been viewed as administratively simple to implement; the benefit can be calculated from Social Security administrative records using a completely automated electronic process. Therefore-in contrast to the SSI program itself-an FBR-based minimum benefit would incur virtually no ongoing administrative costs, would not require a separate application for a means-tested program, and would avoid the perception of welfare stigma. While these ideas have been discussed in the literature and among policymakers in the United States over the years, and similar proposals have been considered or implemented in several foreign countries, there have been no previous analyses measuring the size of the potentially affected beneficiary population. Nor has there been any systematic assessment of the FBR as a measure of benefit adequacy or the tradeoffs between potential target effectiveness and administrative simplicity. Based on a series of simulations, we assess the FBR as a potential foundation for minimum Social Security benefits and we examine the tradeoffs between administrative simplicity and target effectiveness using microdata from the 1996 panel of the Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP). Our empirical analysis is limited to Social Security retired-worker beneficiaries aged 65 or older. We start with the assessment of the FBR as a measure of benefit adequacy. We are particularly concerned about two types of error: (1) incorrectly identifying some Social Security beneficiaries as "economically vulnerable," and (2) incorrectly identifying others as "not economically vulnerable." Operationally we measure economic vulnerability by two alternative standards. One of our measures considers beneficiaries with family income below the official poverty threshold as vulnerable. Our second measure is more restrictive; it uses a family income threshold equal to 75 percent of the official poverty threshold. We find that a substantial minority of retired workers have Social Security benefits below the FBR. The results also show that the FBR-based measure of Social Security benefit adequacy is very imprecise in terms of identifying economically vulnerable people. We estimate that the vast majority of beneficiaries with Social Security benefits below the FBR are not economically vulnerable. Conversely, an FBR-level Social Security benefit threshold fails to identify some beneficiaries who are economically vulnerable. Thus an FBR-level minimum benefit would be poorly targeted in terms of both types of errors we are concerned about. An FBR-level minimum benefit would provide minimum Social Security benefits to many people who are clearly not poor. Conversely, an FBR-level minimum benefit would not provide any income relief to some who are poor. The administrative simplicity behind these screening errors also results in additional program cost that may be perceived as substantial. We estimate that an FBR-level minimum benefit would increase aggregate program cost for retired workers aged 65 or older by roughly 2 percent. There are two fundamental reasons for these findings. First, the concept of an FBR-level minimum benefit looks at the individual or married couple in artificial isolation; however, the family is the main consumption unit in our society. The income of an unmarried partner or family members other than a married spouse is ignored. Second, individuals and couples may also have income from sources other than Social Security or SSI, which is also ignored by a simple FBR-based minimum benefit concept. The substantial empirical magnitude of measurement error arising from these conceptual simplifications naturally leads to the assessment of the tradeoff between target effectiveness and administrative simplicity. To facilitate this analysis, we simulate the potential effect of alternative screening methods designed to increase target effectiveness; while reducing program cost, such alternatives also may increase administrative complexity. For example, considering the combined Social Security benefit of a married couple (rather than looking at the husband and wife in isolation) might substantially increase target effectiveness with a relatively small increase in administrative complexity. Adding a family income screen might increase administrative complexity to a greater degree, but also would increase target effectiveness dramatically. The results also suggest that at some point adding new screens-such as a comprehensive asset test-may drastically increase administrative complexity with diminishing returns in terms of increased target effectiveness and reduced program cost. Whether a broad-based minimum benefit concept that is not tied to previous work experience is perceived by policymakers as desirable or not may depend on several factors not addressed in this article. However, to the extent that this type of minimum benefit design is regarded as potentially desirable, the tradeoffs between administrative simplicity and target effectiveness need to be considered.

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Aged, 80 and over
  • Female
  • Government Programs / economics
  • Government Programs / statistics & numerical data
  • Humans
  • Income / statistics & numerical data
  • Male
  • Poverty
  • Retirement / economics*
  • Social Security / economics*
  • Social Security / statistics & numerical data
  • Socioeconomic Factors
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • United States
  • United States Social Security Administration