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Statisticians Thriving at the Social Security Administration

1 April 2010 4,722 views No Comment
William W. Davis, Chief Mathematical Statistician, Social Security Administration

    Since its inception 75 years ago this year, the Social Security program has grown to the point where it touches the lives of almost every American. Statisticians and others in the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics at the Social Security Administration (SSA) produce data, statistics, and analyses that are used by policymakers to evaluate how well the current program meets the needs of beneficiaries and the effects of possible changes to the program on individuals, the economy, and the solvency of the program. Even the Social Security number itself is the topic of a major initiative.

    The Social Security Act of 1935 created the Social Security Board, which eventually became the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 1946. For more than five decades, SSA was an agency under various cabinet-level departments. Independent agency status was regained with the Social Security Independence and Program Improvement Act of 1994. Since 1995, SSA has been an independent agency in the executive branch of the government and is headed by a commissioner who is appointed by the president with Senate confirmation for a six-year term.

    SSA is responsible for one of the largest federal entitlement programs: Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI), which provides monthly benefits to qualified retired and disabled workers and their dependents, and also to survivors of insured workers. SSA also administers Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a needs-based program that provides financial support for aged, blind, and disabled adults and children with limited income and resources. During 2008, the OASDI and SSI programs paid $615 billion and $43 billion in benefits, respectively.

    The agency has a staff of almost 65,000 employees and more than 1,300 field offices. It issues Social Security numbers (SSNs), maintains detailed earnings records for covered workers, and keeps recipient records current and accurate. Because of these broad responsibilities, SSA collects and maintains a substantial amount of program-related administrative data on current and potential beneficiaries.

    With program administration as its primary function, SSA as a whole is not a statistical agency. However, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has recognized the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics (ORES) within the Office of Retirement and Disability Policy (ORDP) as a statistical unit under the Confidential Information Protection and Statistical Efficiency Act of 2002. ORES is relatively small, with about 100 employees. Almost all of them occupy research positions or perform other technical functions such as computer programming and report preparation and interface with data users. ORES researchers have graduate degrees in economics, public policy, demography, sociology, and related disciplines. Of these, approximately 10 are PhD and master’s-level statisticians. These statisticians assist in informing the public about beneficiary populations and the operation of Social Security programs through publications and other products. In addition, some statisticians consult throughout SSA on a variety of important projects.

    Linked Administrative Data and Projections

    Because administrative data are used for determining eligibility and benefit amounts for social insurance programs, they are subject to stringent quality control procedures at SSA. However, because these data are typically limited to information required for program administration, they are restricted in scope and do not include broader variables of interest to the research community. SSA researchers need this information to project policy change impacts on program costs as well as potential distributional effects on different demographic or economic groupings. Survey data can provide this information about participants as well as similar information about nonparticipants.

    In fact, SSA has been linking its administrative data with survey data for more than 40 years. Some of these linkages are with surveys that SSA commissioned to study specialized populations. However, SSA’s biggest data-linkage partner is the Census Bureau, and its Survey of Income and Program Participation (SIPP) is an extremely important data source to SSA. SIPP data elements include income from a wide range of money and nonmoney sources (including public assistance programs and employer-provided benefits), financial assets, and family characteristics (including size, composition, income, and education of household members).

    Linking administrative and survey data combines the completeness and accuracy of SSA administrative records with the range and scope of survey results, maximizing the strengths and minimizing the limitations associated with each. When comparable data are collected in both an administrative file and a survey, statisticians and policy analysts are able to evaluate the extent of underreporting or overreporting attributable to the respondent. Survey responses matched to administrative data can be used to document the benefit amounts that the recipient reports in the survey and compare them with the actual dollar amounts distributed. Similarly, matched responses can be used to assess the quality of values imputed for missing income.

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