The John M. Olin Center

Paper Abstract

520. Howell E. Jackson, Accounting for Social Security Benefits, 08/2005.

Abstract: Every year, the Social Security Administration mails Social Security Statements to all eligible workers over the age of 25. These Statements include estimates of monthly retirement and other benefits that participants are projected to receive under the Social Security Act. The Statements also summarize Social Security Administration (SSA) records about participants’ earnings history, which determines benefit levels, and provide various background information about the Social Security program and its finances. For many Americans, the Social Security Statement is the principal source of information about Social Security benefits. This paper analyzes the content of the current Social Security Statement. While the Social Security Statements are useful tools for certain kinds of financial planning and allow participants to check the accuracy of the Administration’s records of their earnings history, the Statements may also lead participants to misinterpret the value of their Social Security benefits and may make it difficult for participants to compare Social Security benefits to other sources of retirement savings. In addition, the current Social Security Statements obscure the extent to which additional years of labor market participation increase the value of Social Security benefits. After reviewing the strengths and weakness of the current structure of Social Security Statements, the chapter then describes how these statements might be supplemented with estimates of the actuarial value of Social Securities benefits for individual participants. This supplemental information would make it easier for participants to compare Social Security benefits to other sources of retirement incomes, and would highlight the manner in which participants’ Social Security benefits accrue over time thereby mitigating some of the labor market inefficiencies associated with Social Security payroll taxes. The chapter concludes with a review of several potential drawbacks of supplementing Social Security Statements with accrued values, including the possibility that this supplemental information would make it more difficult to change Social Security benefits in the future, the possibility that disclosing the accrued value of Social Security benefits could lead some workers to make offsetting reductions in other forms of retirement savings, and the possibility that this supplemental information might make the redistributive aspects of the Social Security system more transparent, potentially weakening support for the program among some constituencies.

520: PDF