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entitled 'Social Security Statements: Social Security Administration 
Should Better Evaluate Whether Workers Understand Their Statements' 
which was released on April 4, 2005.

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Report to Congressional Requesters:

United States Government Accountability Office:

GAO:

April 2005:

Social Security Statements:

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

GAO-05-192:

GAO Highlights:

Highlights of GAO-05-192, a report to congressional requesters:

Why GAO Did This Study:

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.

What GAO Found:

Participants in our review identified both strengths and weaknesses in 
the current statement's understandability. Many respondents to GAO's 
national survey recalled receiving a statement, but had little 
recollection of some components, for example, the information on Social 
Security's future. Focus group participants provided more detailed 
information; they found the statement to be comprehensive but less well 
presented than a comparison statement they also reviewed. A firm that 
evaluates benefits statements had similar conclusions. The firm rated 
the quality of primary content and said the general understandability 
of the statement favorably compared with that of other statements, but 
use of design to help convey information and quality of secondary 
content fared less well.

The Social Security Statement's Evaluation Scores Compared with 
Industry Average Scores:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

The Social Security Administration's current evaluation of the 
statement's understandability is limited because it does not include 
focus groups or data from the agency's many public contacts. For 
feedback, the agency relies almost exclusively on an annual survey 
covering many aspects of the Social Security program. Its questions 
about the statement are general and change each year, limiting their 
effectiveness. The agency also does not routinely use data collected 
from such sources as its telephone call centers, walk-in traffic, or 
Web site to help determine whether the statement is meeting its goals.

Private sector experts and countries GAO studied use several practices 
the Social Security Administration may find helpful, such as regularly 
gathering feedback from statement recipients, customizing messages for 
different age groups, and changing statements every few years to keep 
readers interested. They also tended to design their statements in ways 
GAO's focus groups preferred--for example, putting the most important 
information at the start.

What GAO Recommends:

GAO recommends that the Social Security Administration (SSA) develop a 
plan for regularly evaluating the statement with data from a variety of 
sources. The Social Security Administration should use the resulting 
information to determine what changes, if any, need to be made in the 
statement's format and content. SSA agreed with our recommendations.

www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-05-192.

To view the full product, including the scope and methodology, click on 
the link above. For more information, contact Barbara Bovbjerg at (202) 
512-5491 or bovbjergb@gao.gov.

[End of section] 

Contents:

Letter:

Results in Brief:

Background:

Statement Found to Have Both Strengths and Weaknesses in Its 
Understandability:

SSA's Current Evaluation of the Statement's Understandability Is 
Limited:

Other Countries Studied and Private Sector Benefits Consultants Use 
Several Promising Practices That May Be Helpful to SSA:

Conclusion:

Recommendations for Executive Action:

Agency Comments:

Appendix I: Court Rulings on Rights to Social Security Benefits:

The Precedent-Setting Decision:

Other Challenges under the Due Process Clause:

Gender-Based Discrimination Decisions:

Changes to Benefits as a Result of Social Security Reform:

Summary:

Appendix II: Scope and Methodology:

Appendix III: 2004 Social Security Statement:

Appendix IV: Examples of Private Sector Retirement Statements:

Appendix V: Example of a Statement from Canada:

Appendix VI: Comments from the Social Security Administration:

Appendix VII: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments:

Contacts:

Staff Acknowledgments:

Table:

Table 1: Percentage of Survey Respondents Who Remembered Elements of 
the Social Security Statement:

Figures:

Figure 1: Examples of Technical Terms That Focus Group Participants 
Found Confusing:

Figure 2: Excerpts of Explanations That Focus Group Participants Found 
Confusing:

Figure 3: Examples of Explanations That Focus Group Participants Found 
Contradictory:

Figure 4: Statement's Evaluation Scores Compared with Industry Average 
Scores:

Figure 5: Example of Related Information Located in Different Parts of 
the Statement:

Figure 6: Example of Chart in the Private Sector Statement:

Figure 7: Potential Illustration Showing Monthly Social Security 
Retirement Benefit by Age, from 62 to 70:

Figure 8: Graphic Used by SSA to Illustrate Demographic Changes 
Affecting Social Security:

Figure 9: Example of Supplemental Information Included by Canada in an 
Insert:

Abbreviations:

PEBES: Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement:

PUMS: Public Understanding Measurement System:

SSA: Social Security Administration:

United States Government Accountability Office:

Washington, DC 20548:

April 1, 2005:

The Honorable Tom Delay: 
Majority Leader: 
House of Representatives:

The Honorable Jim McCrery: 
Chair, Subcommittee on Social Security: 
Committee on Ways and Means: 
House of Representatives:

The Honorable E. Clay Shaw, Jr: 
House of Representatives:

Social Security, the nation's largest federal program, touches the 
lives of virtually all the nation's citizens. It provides a measure of 
economic security and financial stability by providing retirement, 
disability, and survivorship benefits. The Social Security 
Administration (SSA) provides benefits information as well as other 
related information on an annual statement to virtually all American 
workers. The Social Security Statement (the statement) represents one 
of the federal government's largest efforts to communicate directly 
with workers about their Social Security benefits. In 2003, SSA mailed 
statements to more than 140 million people at a cost of approximately 
$45 million. Because the statement is mailed to so many homes, the 
Social Security Advisory Board recommended in 1997 that it should be 
one of the highest priorities of the agency and receive careful and 
high-level attention with respect to content and design.[Footnote 1] 
Since then, SSA has made some significant revisions, based in part on 
our work, to improve the statement's clarity and understandability. 
[Footnote 2] In 2000, the Social Security Commissioner testified that 
the statement is the most significant vehicle that SSA has to increase 
the public's understanding of the basic features of Social Security and 
enable Americans to prepare for long-term financial security.

The individualized nature of the statement and the diverse population 
it serves make developing a clear and understandable document a complex 
process. Statements must correctly list each individual's annual 
earnings history as well as future projections of retirement, 
disability, and survivorship benefits. The statement must also be 
understandable to an audience that varies considerably in age, 
educational level, and cultural background. In addition, the production 
and evaluation of the statement involve several SSA offices and 
contractors. Further, the statement may be taking on added importance 
as a tool for communicating to the public potential changes in Social 
Security. With the baby boom generation's forthcoming retirement, 
longer life spans, and lower birthrates, Social Security's financing 
shortfall will grow. The President has identified the reform of the 
Social Security system as a major agenda item for his administration, 
and if reform is enacted, educating the public about any program 
changes and how they will affect benefits will likely be a high 
priority for SSA.

Given the statement's importance, you asked us to review SSA's efforts 
to ensure its understandability and to do so in the context of what 
information private sector employers are providing to their employees 
and what other industrialized countries provide to citizens about their 
public pension plans.[Footnote 3] Specifically, our objectives were to 
address (1) how well recipients understand the current statement, (2) 
how SSA is evaluating the statement's understandability, and (3) the 
promising practices used by private sector companies and other 
industrialized countries that could be used by the Social Security 
Administration. In addition, you asked us to review a person's legal 
rights to benefits. Appendix I summarizes the applicable caselaw 
regarding an individual's rights to Social Security benefits.

To answer the above questions, we collected data from a wide variety of 
sources. We assessed the statement's understandability and usefulness 
in conjunction with a GAO national random telephone survey on financial 
literacy. We also contracted with a private market research firm, 
OneWorld Communications, to conduct six focus groups that reviewed the 
statement's content and design and compared them with those of a 
private sector benefit statement. These focus groups were held in 
Seattle, Chicago, and Atlanta and were balanced for age, gender, and 
ethnicity. We also contracted with a nationally recognized benefit 
statement evaluation firm, Dalbar Inc., to evaluate and score the 
statement based on the firm's criteria for private sector benefit 
statements. We interviewed SSA officials to discuss their procedures 
for evaluating the statement. To gather data about private sector 
benefit statements and statements used by other industrialized 
countries, we interviewed private companies that specialize in benefit 
statement preparation and distribution as well as public pension 
officials in Canada, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. To determine the 
legally required information in both the Social Security Statement and 
private pension benefit statements, we reviewed applicable laws. We 
also analyzed caselaw on legal rights to benefits under the Social 
Security program. Appendix II explains the scope and methodology of our 
work in greater detail. We conducted our work between March 2004 and 
March 2005 in accordance with generally accepted government auditing 
standards.

Results in Brief:

The respondents to our survey, as well as the focus group participants 
and the benefits consulting firm that we asked to review the statement, 
identified both strengths and weaknesses in its understandability. 
About 66 percent of people responding to our survey remembered 
receiving the statement, though some parts--for example, the benefit 
estimates and earnings history--tended to be remembered much more than 
the information about Social Security's future. Focus group 
participants generally found their earnings history and benefit 
estimates understandable and useful. However, they found some of the 
other information confusing or contradictory--for example, the role 
credits play in determining benefit eligibility and the role earnings 
play in calculating benefits. To be eligible for benefits, workers must 
have earned enough income over their working lifetimes to qualify for 
at least 40 credits.[Footnote 4] However, once eligible, the worker's 
actual benefit is not determined by credits but by a measure of 
lifetime earnings.[Footnote 5] Many focus group participants were still 
confused about these complex concepts after reading their statements. 
They were also confused about the statement's explanation of Social 
Security's solvency challenges. When participants were asked to compare 
the Social Security Statement with a private sector benefit statement, 
many found the Social Security Statement more comprehensive in scope 
but lacking in helpful design features, such as the use of color and 
graphics. Some participants also preferred the private sector 
statement's presentation of the need for supplemental income in 
retirement. The benefits consulting firm that reviewed the statement 
gave it a communication effectiveness score of 65 out of 100, which 
fell below the industry average score of 73. The firm found that the 
statement was strong in its presentation of benefits and use of plain 
language but could be improved through better design, targeted 
messaging, and more information on income needs in retirement.

SSA's current methods of evaluating the statement are limited. To date, 
SSA has evaluated the statement primarily through an annual survey of 
the general public. This survey is conducted for many other purposes 
besides evaluating the statement, and the survey's questions 
specifically about the statement have been general and have changed 
from year to year. Assessing the statement through this limited 
approach may not provide the depth and detail needed to comprehensively 
assess the statement's understandability. Also, while SSA collects and 
analyzes a variety of data about its services, it is not systematically 
collecting any data from internal sources, such as the customer call 
centers, walk-in traffic, and its Web site, about whether the statement 
is understandable or meeting its goals. For example, although 
correction of inaccurate earnings records is a goal of the statement 
and SSA officials reported that they corrected 360,000 earnings records 
in 2003, no data were collected to determine how many corrections 
resulted from receiving a statement.

Private sector benefits consultants and other industrialized countries 
utilize several promising practices that may be helpful to SSA, such as 
regularly gathering feedback from statement recipients and utilizing 
customized messages. All of the consultants and officials from other 
countries that we spoke with regularly and systematically collect 
feedback from recipients regarding the usefulness and understandability 
of their statements. For example, officials from Sweden told us that 
they utilized what they called "hot surveys," which are surveys that 
are sent out within a month of when the statement is sent to 
specifically assess the usefulness and understandability of the 
statement. This survey technique allows the recipients to give feedback 
about the statement while their impressions regarding the statement are 
relatively current. Benefits consultants and other countries also 
utilize customized messages that differ depending on the age of the 
recipient. For example, officials in the United Kingdom told us that 
younger workers receive messages emphasizing the importance of starting 
to save for their retirement early in their careers and workers closer 
to retirement receive messages regarding how to maintain their current 
lifestyle, including increasing personal savings and working longer. 
Officials at both the consulting firms and in other countries told us 
that workers are more likely to read and remember information that is 
relevant to them. Finally, consulting firm officials told us that 
regularly modifying the statement's appearance could help make the 
statement more effective, since recipients would be less likely to 
assume that they are receiving the same old statement year after year.

This report contains recommendations for executive action. 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 the Web site. 
On the basis of data it receives and a review of promising practices in 
the private sector and other countries, SSA should consider revising 
the statement to include showing the personalized benefit information 
first and using more graphics. In its response to our draft report, SSA 
agreed to develop a plan for regularly evaluating the statement and 
will consider revising the statement as appropriate and necessary. 
(SSA's comments are reproduced in app. VI.)

Background:

SSA is required by law to provide annual statements with benefits and 
earnings information to individuals over the age of 25 who have a 
Social Security number and have wages or earnings from self- 
employment.[Footnote 6] The law requires each statement to contain the 
following:

* an estimate of the potential monthly Social Security retirement, 
disability, survivor, and auxiliary benefits and a description of the 
benefits under Medicare;[Footnote 7]

* the amount of wages paid to the employee or income from self- 
employment;

* an estimate of the individual's aggregate taxes paid to Social 
Security; and:

* an estimate of the individual's aggregate taxes paid to Medicare.

Appendix III contains an example of the current statement with the 
legally required information highlighted.

The requirement to mail the statements was phased in beginning in 
fiscal year 1995, when SSA was required to mail the annual statement-- 
then named the Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement 
(PEBES)--to all workers age 60 and older. In addition to the 
informational requirements, Congress required SSA to send the annual 
statement to selected age groups of workers not receiving benefits and 
for whom a mailing address can be determined. Starting in fiscal year 
2000, SSA was required to mail the annual statement, now called the 
Social Security Statement, to workers age 25 and older. However, SSA 
officials decided to mail a larger number of statements earlier than 
fiscal year 2000 to phase in the added workload over several years. The 
accelerated schedule began in fiscal year 1996, when SSA added 
individuals turning 58 and 59. In subsequent years, SSA added 
increasingly younger people until people as young as 25 began receiving 
the statement in fiscal year 2000.[Footnote 8] These statements are 
generally mailed about 3 months before the worker's birthday.

The current Social Security Statement has evolved over several years. 
The initial PEBES was a six-page document and contained information 
such as the worker's earnings record, benefits estimates and a question-
and-answer section about Social Security. However, in a previous 
report, we found that PEBES did not clearly communicate the complex 
information that workers needed to understand about SSA's programs and 
benefits.[Footnote 9] In response, SSA made significant changes to the 
format and presentation of the PEBES, tested a four-page Social 
Security Statement in 1997, and began mailing it to the public in 
October 1999. The newer statement was shorter, better organized, and 
easier to read than the PEBES, but our follow-up review in 2000 
identified some remaining rough spots. The January 2005 statement 
retains the four-page organization of the 1999 statement and generally 
used green underlining to highlight the page headings for each page of 
the statement. Although the statement has evolved over the years, some 
information in the statement has been included since it was first 
mailed to the public, such as the description of Social Security 
programs and the financial future of Social Security, including the 
long-term financial challenges that the system faces. To complement the 
statement, SSA created a special one-page insert for workers age 55 and 
older that was first mailed in October 2000. This insert is mailed with 
the statement and provides information to assist workers in making 
decisions about when to retire.

In addition to complying with the legal requirements, SSA has 
established three agency goals for the statement--to educate the public 
about benefits under SSA programs, to aid in financial planning, and to 
ensure the worker's earnings records are complete and accurate. SSA 
believes that its statement is providing useful information to the 
general public. The following goals have remained constant since 1995, 
when SSA began designing earlier versions of the statement:

* To educate the public about SSA programs, the statement contains 
information about Social Security benefits. The statement provides 
information about various benefits, including retirement, disability, 
family, and survivor benefits.

* To aid financial planning, the statement contains information about 
planning for retirement. For example, the statement says that Social 
Security was never intended to be the only source of retirement income 
and that an individual needs other savings, investments, pensions, or 
retirement accounts to ensure having enough money to live comfortably. 
The statement also contains information about working and still 
receiving Social Security retirement benefits and makes reference to an 
SSA booklet to help determine the best time to retire.

* To verify earnings, the statement asks the worker to review the 
earnings information and make certain that the information is complete 
because Social Security benefits are based on earnings.

Statement Found to Have Both Strengths and Weaknesses in Its 
Understandability:

The respondents to our survey, as well as the focus groups and the 
benefits consulting firm we asked to review the statement, identified 
both strengths and weaknesses in its understandability. Our survey 
provided general information about the statement in terms of how many 
people recalled receiving it and what types of information they 
remembered. Specifically, about 66 percent of survey respondents 
remembered receiving their statement.[Footnote 10] However, more 
respondents remembered seeing the statement's personalized information, 
such as benefit estimates and earnings history, than remembered seeing 
the more generic information. Feedback from the focus group 
participants provided detailed insight about the areas of the statement 
they understood and how confusing information might be improved. For 
example, focus group participants generally found their earnings 
records and benefit estimates understandable and useful but had 
difficulty with information about how the program operated and what its 
long-term prospects were. When participants were asked to compare the 
Social Security Statement with a private sector benefit statement, many 
found the Social Security Statement more comprehensive, but they 
preferred many aspects of the private sector statement. In particular, 
participants liked the private sector statement's use of color and 
graphics. The benefits consulting firm, which evaluated the statement 
against the industry's best practices, scored it lower than the 
industry average for defined benefit statements. Officials from the 
firm said the statement was strong in its presentation of benefits and 
use of plain language but could be improved through better design, 
targeted messaging, and more information on income needs in retirement.

What Works Well in the Statement?

A majority of respondents in our national survey indicated a 
familiarity with the statement and could recall the personal 
information it contained. Our national telephone survey asked 
respondents if they remembered receiving a statement, whether they 
recalled specific sections of the statement, and how understandable and 
useful they found each section. Survey results indicated that 
approximately 66 percent of respondents who were eligible to receive a 
statement remembered receiving it.[Footnote 11] Of the five sections of 
the statement--explanation of Social Security benefits, estimated 
monthly benefits upon retirement, earnings per year, general facts 
about Social Security benefits, and the statement on the future of 
Social Security--the section on earnings per year was, we believe, the 
easiest for most people to understand.[Footnote 12]

The six focus groups conducted by our focus group moderator generally 
reported that except for several key items that were confusing or hard 
to understand, the information presented in the statement was 
understandable. These groups, composed of people of various ages and 
educational backgrounds, were instructed by the moderator to carefully 
read each page of the statement, which participants admitted is less 
likely to happen when they receive the statement in the mail. 
Participants found the benefit estimates and earnings history 
understandable and frequently commented that it was the information 
they were most likely to look at when they received the statement in 
the mail.[Footnote 13] Some of the older participants found the benefit 
estimates particularly useful, since their estimates were based on a 
longer earnings history and were likely to be more accurate than those 
for younger participants with fewer work years. Participants 
appreciated the opportunity to review their earnings history, and many 
said they would follow the directions in the statement and call SSA's 
800 number if they discovered errors. Many participants found the total 
amount of Social Security and Medicare taxes they paid to be 
understandable.

Several of these themes were echoed by the benefits consulting firm we 
asked to evaluate the statement. This firm, which specializes in 
evaluating the effectiveness and consistency of written materials from 
financial services institutions to their customers, reviewed and scored 
the statement based on the firm's standardized criteria. The firm gave 
the statement an overall score of 65 out of 100 based on these 
criteria. By comparison, the average score of private sector statements 
in the firm's database was 73. The firm identified the statement's 
strengths as:

* being written in easy-to-understand language;

* providing benefit estimates for different retirement ages as well as 
for disability and survivorship;

* identifying the statement's source and purpose;

* providing the personal data used to calculate benefits, such as date 
of birth and earnings record, so recipients can check information for 
accuracy:

What Does Not Work Well?

The survey respondents who remembered receiving a statement varied 
considerably in the extent to which they remembered the different types 
of information that SSA was trying to communicate. For example, of the 
people who said they remembered receiving a statement, about one-fifth 
remembered seeing all the major areas of information on the statement. 
As table 1 shows, of all the statement's information, respondents least 
remembered the information on the future of Social Security.

Table 1: Percentage of Survey Respondents Who Remembered Elements of 
the Social Security Statement:

Element of the statement: Explanation of Social Security benefits; 
Percentage of respondents who recalled seeing the element: 84%.

Element of the statement: Estimated monthly benefits upon retirement; 
Percentage of respondents who recalled seeing the element: 90%.

Element of the statement: Earnings per year; 
Percentage of respondents who recalled seeing the element: 84%.

Element of the statement: General facts about Social Security benefits; 
Percentage of respondents who recalled seeing the element: 64%.

Element of the statement: The statement on the future of Social 
Security; 
Percentage of respondents who recalled seeing the element: 29%.

Source: GAO survey data.

[End of table]

Many focus group participants identified some of the statement's 
information about the Social Security program as confusing. In some 
cases, participants did not understand the actual meaning of a word or 
phrase, such as "actuary" and "intermediate assumption" (see fig. 1 for 
the sentence in which the terms appear). Also, the meaning of the 
phrase "compact between generations," used to describe the pay-as-you- 
go nature of Social Security, was unclear to many.[Footnote 14]

Figure 1: Examples of Technical Terms That Focus Group Participants 
Found Confusing:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Besides not understanding certain terms, participants across the focus 
groups also did not understand explanations of certain concepts 
discussed in the statement. For example, many participants were 
confused about the role of credits in determining their eligibility for 
retirement benefits versus the role of earnings in determining their 
actual retirement benefit. As figure 2 shows, these are very complex 
issues to explain in brief and straightforward language. While SSA has 
made changes to improve explanations of concepts, our focus group 
results suggest there is a need for further refinements. Finally, 
information that applies only to certain groups of workers confused 
some participants. For example, a couple of participants questioned 
whether they needed to request the free publication about the windfall 
elimination provision because the statement's description of this 
publication is listed with other publication titles that pertain to all 
workers and the statement does not make it clear that this provision 
primarily affects government workers.[Footnote 15]

Figure 2: Excerpts of Explanations That Focus Group Participants Found 
Confusing:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

The statement's information about the financial stability of the Social 
Security system was confusing and a source of concern for most focus 
group participants. Virtually all participants said they were at least 
generally aware that Social Security is facing fiscal challenges. 
Several voiced concerns that their estimated benefits might not be 
available when they are ready to retire, given the statement's 
information about the exhaustion of the trust funds and other caveats 
on future benefits, such as being estimated in today's dollars and 
based on current law. Many also found the reassurances on page 1 about 
Social Security being available upon retirement followed by the 
information about it facing serious financial problems to be 
contradictory (see fig. 3). The statement's explanation that Social 
Security will still be able to pay 73 cents for each dollar of 
scheduled retirement benefits even though the trust funds will be 
exhausted in 2042 confused many participants.[Footnote 16] While most 
participants felt it was important to have information in the statement 
about Social Security's future insolvency, phrases such as "unless 
action is taken soon" and "we will need to resolve these issues soon" 
did not provide the information many felt they needed to understand the 
problem and what personal action, if any, they were expected to take.

Figure 3: Examples of Explanations That Focus Group Participants Found 
Contradictory:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

The benefits consulting firm that evaluated the statement, like the 
focus group participants, found the statement was weak in design and 
conveying financial planning information. The firm designated the 
statement as good and awarded it points in five standardized evaluation 
categories.[Footnote 17] Figure 4 shows more specifically how this 
score was divided among the five. The statement scored above or near 
the industry average in quality of primary content and 
understandability. However, the statement scored below the industry 
average in quality of secondary content and the two categories related 
to design features.

Figure 4: Statement's Evaluation Scores Compared with Industry Average 
Scores:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Specific reasons the statement lost points when compared with industry 
best practices include the following:

* The statement does not compare the retirement benefit with how much 
income a person may need in retirement or offer suggestions and 
strategies for meeting income goals through other sources of retirement 
income.

* The design does not clearly identify the most important information 
or easily lead the reader through the document. For example, the 
retirement benefit information is not prominent, and the statement uses 
multiple styles of presentation within a single page.

* Much of the statement is relevant to only certain groups of 
recipients, or if relevant to all recipients, the information is not 
customized appropriately for differing audiences. Irrelevant content 
can create confusion and reduce readership.

* The statement has some repetitive content and uses text instead of 
graphics, such as charts and tables. It also contains numerical data, 
other than a citizen's actual benefit, that may be confusing or result 
in a failure to communicate critical information.

How Much Information Do People Want?

The focus group participants had mixed opinions about the amount of 
information the statement should contain. On the one hand, some 
participants felt that the statement contained so much information that 
it reduced their interest in reading it. These people claimed they 
generally reviewed the information on pages 2 and 3--their benefit 
estimates and earnings history--and filed the statement away. On the 
other hand, some participants believed that the statement introduced 
certain issues but then did not provide an adequate explanation. For 
example, some participants wanted more information on survivorship 
benefits, specifically children's eligibility ages and whether 
statement estimates were per child or a total amount for all children. 
Many participants wanted retirement benefit estimates for additional 
ages, specifically 63, 64, and 66.[Footnote 18] Also, while 
participants generally understood that the retirement age was rising, 
they felt the information about the full retirement age for people born 
between 1938 and 1960 was missing. Finally, many participants had 
questions about information presented early in the statement (for 
example, disability benefits) that information on the statement's last 
page answered. When SSA redesigned the statement in 1999, it reduced 
the need for the reader to flip to other pages to find related 
information. However, our focus group responses suggest that more could 
be done in this area (see fig. 5).

Figure 5: Example of Related Information Located in Different Parts of 
the Statement:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

To make the statement be most effective, the benefits consulting firm 
recommended keeping the information on the statement brief and highly 
relevant to the individual, with clear directions on how to get more 
information. The firm recommended avoiding information attempting to 
encompass all recipients, since the readers generally ignore such 
information. For example, the message on page 1 that "Social Security 
is for people of all ages" does not provide any specific information 
for the individual. The firm defined the most important content as the 
benefit estimates, factors that may affect benefit amounts, and points 
of contact that can provide more information.

How Do People Want the Information Presented?

When asked to compare the Social Security Statement with a private 
sector statement, many focus group participants recognized that the 
Social Security Statement had different and more complex information to 
convey, but they preferred the design of the private sector 
statement.[Footnote 19] Our focus group moderator asked participants to 
compare the Social Security Statement with a private sector statement 
that had been rated as excellent by the benefits consulting firm with 
which we contracted. The focus group moderator asked participants to 
compare the two statements in terms of length and presentation of 
information. Many participants favored the way the private sector 
statement grouped information and used color and graphics. 
Specifically, many liked the private sector statement's use of a 
colored pie chart illustrating what percentage Social Security and 
other retirement savings will be required to replace current monthly 
salary. (This chart is shown in fig. 6). Although the focus group 
participants preferred the use of color in the private sector 
statement, they did not discuss the likely higher costs associated with 
producing such statements. Some participants may not have preferred the 
use of color in the statement if the cost of producing such statements 
was significantly higher than statements with little or no color.

Figure 6: Example of Chart in the Private Sector Statement:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

What Specific Changes Were Suggested?

One common theme that emerged in the suggestions made by the focus 
groups and the benefits consulting firm was to use graphics to replace 
text, making some information more quickly and easily understandable. 
Specifically, the benefits consulting firm said that people are more 
likely to scan numerical data than to read large amounts of text. 
Figure 6 above shows a pie chart that is central to one of SSA's goals 
for the statement--aiding in financial planning. This chart was 
something that focus group participants said they liked about the 
private sector statement, and the benefits consulting firm recommended 
it as a way to provide more context on income needs in retirement.

Some focus group participants also said they would like to see benefit 
estimates for the ages of 63, 64, and 66 in addition to the ages in the 
statement. Figure 7 shows how this information might be depicted. It 
helps quickly communicate that working longer may result in a higher 
benefit.

Figure 7: Potential Illustration Showing Monthly Social Security 
Retirement Benefit by Age, from 62 to 70:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Additionally, SSA is currently using graphics in its other publications 
to illustrate many of the concepts explained with text in the 
statement. For example, in its publication "The Future of Social 
Security," SSA uses a graphic to illustrate the demographic changes 
contributing to Social Security's financial insolvency (see fig. 8).

Figure 8: Graphic Used by SSA to Illustrate Demographic Changes 
Affecting Social Security:

[See PDF for image]

Source: SSA, "The Future of Social Security" January 2004.

[End of figure]

In addition to suggesting replacing some of the statement's text with 
graphics, the focus group participants and benefits consulting firm 
made a number of other specific recommendations about how to improve 
the statement. On the basis of the participants' comments, the focus 
group moderator recommended design improvements to help readers more 
quickly find and absorb information; the suggestions included combining 
the information on pages 1 and 4 and moving the personalized 
information on pages 2 and 3 to earlier in the statement because it is 
the information most useful to participants. The benefits consulting 
firm recommended improvements that focus on meeting recipients' 
information needs, increasing readership, minimizing unnecessary 
inquiries at SSA, and increasing the savings rate among U.S. citizens. 
For example:

* Provide contextual information about income needs in retirement. For 
example, give recipients a retirement goal, such as 80 percent of 
current income. Then show how much of that goal Social Security 
provides and how much must come from other income sources.

* Align the order of information with recipients' priorities. For 
example, move the retirement benefit information from page 2 to page 1 
and add an "Important Changes to Your Benefits" section to the 
beginning of the statement that documents any new changes to the 
recipient's calculation of benefits.

* Target messages to keep information highly relevant to the individual 
recipient. Specific messages could be based on whether the person is 
receiving the statement for the first time, his or her age, or 
potential changes to benefit calculations. For example, a 25-year-old 
recipient may need information about how to begin saving instead of 
information on how to apply for Medicare.

SSA's Current Evaluation of the Statement's Understandability Is 
Limited:

SSA has not identified any significant problems with the statement, but 
its evaluation of the statement's understandability is limited and may 
not be identifying problems that exist. SSA has relied almost 
exclusively on questions in its annual Public Understanding Measurement 
System (PUMS) survey, which assesses how much adults know about Social 
Security programs, guides SSA's education and communication activities, 
and gauges the awareness and effectiveness of the statement. Although 
these survey results are generally useful, if they are used as the only 
evaluation, they may not provide the depth and detail needed to assess 
the understandability of each individual section of the statement. Past 
survey questions about the statement have been very general, and the 
number and types of questions have changed from year to year. Since the 
current format was adopted in 1999, SSA has not used focus groups or 
other means to obtain detailed participant views to evaluate the 
complete statement. Additionally, while SSA collects a variety of data 
about its services, it does not systematically collect data about the 
statement's understandability and how well the statement is achieving 
its goals from internal sources, such as its customer call centers, 
walk-in traffic, and its Web site.

SSA Uses Survey to Evaluate Statement, but Its Survey Does Not 
Effectively Identify Problem Areas:

Although the PUMS survey has been SSA's primary tool for evaluating the 
statement in 6 of the last 7 years, for several reasons it is difficult 
to evaluate the statement's understandability from the data SSA 
receives.[Footnote 20] First, the questions about the statement are 
very general, making it difficult to obtain any detailed information. 
In its 2000 report, SSA's contractor for the PUMS survey recommended 
that SSA consider a separate project that would address all aspects of 
the statement and track customer satisfaction and use. However, while 
the 2004 survey asks respondents if they remember certain parts of the 
statement, it does not ask them if the information was understandable 
or useful.[Footnote 21] Second, it is difficult to identify trends in 
the survey responses because the number and type of questions 
specifically about the statement have changed each year. For example, 
from 1999 through 2001, the PUMS survey asked respondents to rate the 
overall understandability of the statement, but neither the 2003 nor 
the 2004 survey asked the same question. Similarly, a question was 
added about satisfaction with the statement in the surveys for 2000 and 
2001, but this question did not appear in the 2003 or 2004 survey. SSA 
officials said they eliminated these questions because there was a high 
percentage of positive responses, and because the statement had not 
been markedly altered in recent years, they did not expect the 
percentages would have changed significantly. Third, since the survey 
is not conducted in conjunction with any particular mailing, 
respondents may have received the statement months before being 
surveyed about its contents and may not recall certain portions of the 
statement or even remember receiving it. In 2003, 35 percent of survey 
respondents said they did not receive a statement even though every 
eligible worker 25 and older should have been mailed an annual 
statement since 1999. With over one-third of survey respondents not 
receiving or not remembering they received a statement, it is difficult 
to use survey results to fully assess the statement.

SSA's Use of Focus Groups for the Statement Has Been Limited:

Since the statement was first mailed to workers in 1999, SSA has not 
conducted focus groups on the entire statement or its preferred 
format.[Footnote 22] The current four-page statement was originally 
developed with the aid of focus groups and a national public opinion 
survey. The focus groups and survey respondents were asked to review a 
(1) one-page prototype, (2) a one-page prototype with a pamphlet, (3) a 
four-page prototype, and (4) a self-mailer prototype.[Footnote 23] 
SSA's survey report indicates that all four prototypes were an 
overwhelming improvement over the six-page PEBES. However, no clear 
preference for a particular format emerged. The four-page format was 
ultimately selected, as it had a higher clarity rating for explanations 
of technical issues and the percentage of respondents with questions 
was somewhat lower than for any other prototype. In addition, 
respondents tended to indicate a preference for the four-page length. 
Since the selection of the four-page format, SSA has not had any focus 
groups reevaluate the entire statement. Additionally, SSA officials 
said they do not have plans to use focus groups unless they are going 
to make major changes to the statement.

SSA Is Not Examining Data from Internal Sources:

SSA is not systematically examining data from internal sources, such as 
its customer call centers, walk-in traffic, or its Web site, about the 
statement's understandability or how well the statement is meeting its 
goals. SSA officials said that informal feedback comes from its 800 
number, the employee suggestion program, and links on its Web site. 
However, SSA does not track specific data about the statement from 
these sources. For example, although correction of inaccurate earnings 
is one of SSA's primary goals for the statement, the agency does not 
have any way of knowing or reliably estimating how many of the reported 
360,000 earnings records that were corrected in 2003 were corrected as 
the result of receiving a statement. Additionally, SSA's 2003 service 
quality report indicated that the third most common reason people 
called the 800 number was because of the statement, but no data are 
available about the specific reasons for the calls. Currently, SSA's 
800 number telephone menu includes a selection option for people who 
are calling because they recently received their statement. However, if 
callers choose the selection option for questions about their statement 
and then mention that they found a mistake on their earnings history, 
SSA codes the call in the earnings category without any documentation 
that it was originally prompted by receipt of a statement. Similarly, 
while the SSA Web site gives users the option of selecting the 
statement as the subject of an inquiry, SSA does not formally review 
questions from the Web site about the statement for trends.

Other Countries Studied and Private Sector Benefits Consultants Use 
Several Promising Practices That May Be Helpful to SSA:

Other countries we studied, as well as the private sector benefits 
consultants we spoke with in this country, use several promising 
practices that may be helpful to SSA to ensure that the statement is 
useful. All of them regularly and systematically collect feedback from 
statement recipients regarding the usefulness and understandability of 
their statements. Many of them also utilize customized messages that 
differ depending on the age of the recipient. Finally, many of the 
benefits consultants recommended significantly modifying the statement 
every few years so that recipients would be less likely to assume that 
it is exactly the same statement that they received the prior year.

Other Countries We Studied and Private Sector Benefits Consultants 
Regularly and Systematically Gather Feedback Regarding Their Statements:

Officials of the entities we studied use various systematic methods of 
collecting recipient feedback to assess the understandability and 
effectiveness of their benefit statements. For example, officials from 
Sweden told us they use hot surveys, which are surveys that are sent 
out within a month of when the statement is mailed, and ask questions 
regarding the statement's understandability and usefulness. They said 
the results of these surveys have resulted in slight changes to their 
statements each year and that before changes are made, they are tested 
in a focus group. Swedish officials told us that this combination of 
surveys and focus groups helps to improve understandability. Sweden 
also uses design consultants from the private sector to make sure that 
its statements conform to industry best practices.

The benefits consulting firms that we spoke with also attempt to assess 
the understandability of their statements through participant feedback. 
For example, one consulting firm includes a detachable postage-paid 
survey card that asks a few questions regarding the participant's 
perception of the statement, including whether the participant found it 
to be understandable. Although even good response rates for this type 
of feedback mechanism are often no higher than 7 to 12 percent, the 
feedback received served as an indicator as to whether or not the 
statements were effective in meeting their objectives and provided 
insight into what changes could be made to improve their 
understandability and usefulness.

Other Countries We Studied and Private Sector Benefits Consultants Use 
Design Enhancements, Customized Messages, and Innovative Delivery 
Options:

Officials from benefits consulting firms told us that they increase the 
usefulness of their statements by using white space, graphics, and 
colors, as well as by ensuring that their statements are not too text- 
intensive. The consultants told us their focus group participants found 
that the use of white space and graphics made the statement easy to 
read. Officials from Canada also told us about the importance of using 
white space as a way to make the statement more effective, and they 
told us that one way they maintain an ample amount of white space is by 
placing only the most important information, such as earnings history 
and benefit estimates, on the statement itself. Other, more 
supplemental information, such as detailed information on the 
importance of saving for retirement, is presented on inserts that are 
included with the statement. In addition to including inserts, they 
also limit the amount of text on their statements by providing the Web 
address and phone numbers that the recipient can use to obtain 
additional information instead of trying to put this supplemental 
information on the statement. Figure 9 shows an example of the type of 
supplemental information that Canada includes in an insert to its 
statement.

Figure 9: Example of Supplemental Information Included by Canada in an 
Insert:

[See PDF for image]

[End of figure]

Benefit consultants also recommended keeping the statement simple and 
providing supplemental information through other means. For example, 
one benefits consultant limits the information on the statement itself 
only to personal information, such as projected benefit amounts and 
vesting status, and provides supplemental information through a Web 
site, which is prominently advertised on each page of the statement. 
The benefits consultants told us that their surveys and focus groups 
have indicated that participants prefer a simple statement over a 
statement that is text-intensive, as long as there are easily 
accessible resources available for further information. For SSA, using 
these design elements would probably mean (1) less text and (2) greater 
reliance than at present on directing recipients to the SSA Web site 
for additional information. However, SSA recognizes that not all 
workers have regular and consistent access to the Internet.

In addition to keeping the statement as simple as possible, most of the 
benefits consulting firms that we spoke with echoed some of the 
recommendations that our focus groups and contracted benefits 
consulting firm made. For example, many of them said placing all of the 
personal information, such as benefit projections and earnings history, 
at the front of the statement is preferable to spreading it throughout 
the statement. They said recipients are more likely to become 
interested in the statement if the most personalized information is 
shown on the first page. Consultants at one firm acknowledged that some 
recipients would simply read the first page and disregard the rest, but 
they said they have found that more people are likely to keep reading 
the information beyond the first page once the personal information has 
gotten their interest. According to the benefits consultants we spoke 
with, SSA could increase the effectiveness of the statement by putting 
some, if not all, of the personalized information toward the front of 
the statement and providing additional resources for more information.

Benefits consultants in this country and agencies in other countries 
also use customized messages that tailor their statements for each 
recipient. For example, the United Kingdom provides different messages 
to workers based on their age. Younger workers receive messages 
emphasizing the importance of starting to save for their retirement 
early in their careers. In contrast, workers closer to retirement 
receive messages regarding how to maintain their current lifestyle, 
including increasing personal savings and working longer. Officials in 
the United Kingdom told us that using these customized messages 
increases the likelihood that the recipients will read and understand 
the information contained on the statement since it is more applicable 
to them. Providing information that is customized for each recipient 
would represent a change for SSA, which currently provides all 
recipients with information, such as the windfall elimination 
provision, that is applicable to only a small number of individuals. 
The benefits consultants that we spoke with told us that including 
information on a statement that is not applicable to certain recipients 
could confuse the recipients and cause them not to finish reading the 
statement or to wonder if something is applicable to them when it is 
not. The benefits consultants also told us that statement recipients 
are more likely to take action, such as saving more for retirement, if 
they can easily understand the statement they receive.

Finally, these other producers of retirement benefit statements use 
various innovative delivery methods. One involves customizing the 
length of time between statements. For example, Canadian officials said 
that they formerly provided their statements every year to all 
recipients but now distribute their statements less often through what 
they call "smart mailing" and have made their statement available for 
viewing at any time over the Internet. Canada provides a statement only 
to individuals who meet certain criteria, such as joining the workforce 
or turning a certain age. For example, individuals who have just joined 
the workforce and have made contributions to the public pension system 
receive a statement welcoming them to the public pension system, 
providing them with limited information about the system, and informing 
them about where to go for further information. After this initial 
statement, workers would not receive another one for 3 to 4 years, at 
which point they would receive a more detailed statement that does 
provide a benefit estimate. Canadian officials told us that their 
approach saved money, since postage is the majority of each statement's 
cost, and also was more effective in that when a statement did arrive, 
recipients were more likely to read it.

Another idea for consideration came from several benefits consultants 
that we spoke with, who said that when a statement is distributed 
annually, periodically changing the statement's appearance could help 
make it more effective. One benefit consultant said annual distribution 
was good in that people think about retirement savings so infrequently 
that at least they would think about it once a year when the statement 
arrived. However, another consultant told us that if the statement is 
provided every year, its appearance should change so that recipients do 
not assume that it is the same old statement and disregard it. Another 
consultant suggested changing the appearance once every 3 years to keep 
the statement looking current, and another consultant said that if the 
statement is to be provided every year, SSA should include a "what's 
new" section on the first page that highlights any changes or additions 
to the current year's statement. The use of these practices would 
represent a change for SSA, which has been sending relatively the same 
statement to all eligible workers for the past 6 years. Subtle changes 
have been made, such as the addition of another year of earnings 
history and slight changes to the Commissioner's message. However, the 
statement has looked virtually the same from the front since 1999. 
According to the consultants, recipients could get in the habit of 
expecting nothing new or fresh on the statement and choose to disregard 
it.

Conclusion:

Our work suggests that in using the annual survey as its only 
evaluation method, SSA is limiting its ability to make well-informed 
and effective improvements to the statement. Surveys do have value; our 
survey, for example, did identify the general areas of the statement 
that were either not recalled or were less understandable than other 
areas. It was people in our focus groups, however, who provided a much 
more detailed assessment of what specific information was confusing and 
how the statement might be improved. Likewise, the assessment by an 
outside specialist helped provide information about how the statement 
is succeeding relative to statements from financial services 
institutions.

While SSA faces many challenges that private sector benefit firms do 
not face in communicating about their programs, there are some 
practices in both the private sector and other countries that, if 
adopted by SSA, could improve the current statement. SSA has made 
improvements to the statement in the past but has not comprehensively 
reevaluated it in approximately 6 years, and key content areas remain 
confusing or are not presented effectively. If key content areas of the 
statement confuse workers, workers might not fully understand their 
benefits and the role Social Security should play in their retirement 
planning. For instance, they might rely too heavily on their Social 
Security retirement income and not have enough personal savings to 
maintain their standard of living throughout their retirement. 
Additionally, because the statement does not utilize certain design 
features, such as placing personalized information on the first page or 
presenting information graphically, some recipients may not read the 
statement.

With the current debate on the long-term fiscal challenges facing 
Social Security and the need to address them, the statement will likely 
become an increasingly important tool for communicating how enacted 
changes to the program will affect benefits. Regularly evaluating the 
statement through multiple methods and making revisions to it will 
involve several SSA offices. Therefore, our work suggests that 
developing and implementing a plan for evaluating the statement and 
revising it based on that plan will require attention from SSA's senior 
leadership.

Recommendations for Executive Action:

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. 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, 
for example:

* showing the personalized benefit information first,

* using graphics to aid readers in quickly comprehending information, 
and:

* providing information to help recipients understand Social Security's 
contribution to their total retirement income.

Agency Comments:

In commenting on a draft of this report, SSA agreed with our 
conclusions and recommendations. By the end of fiscal year 2005, SSA 
anticipates having a draft plan for regularly evaluating the statement. 
In addition SSA will revise the statement when appropriate and 
necessary, and as a first step, will utilize information from this 
report. We also received technical comments from the agency that were 
incorporated as appropriate. Appendix VI shows the agency's comments.

We are sending copies of this report to the Commissioner of the Social 
Security Administration, appropriate congressional committees, and 
other interested parties. We will also make copies available to others 
on request. In addition, the report will be available at no charge on 
GAO's Web site at http://www.gao.gov.

If you have any questions concerning this report please contact me at 
(202) 512-7215 or George Scott at (202) 512-5932. Other contacts and 
acknowledgments are listed in appendix VII.

Sincerely yours,

Signed by: 

Barbara D. Bovbjerg: 
Director, Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues:

[End of section]

Appendix I: Court Rulings on Rights to Social Security Benefits:

Many people believe that after they have worked a lifetime and paid 
Social Security taxes, they have earned a legal right to Social 
Security benefits and that these benefits cannot be reduced or 
completely taken away from them. They believe that they have a 
contractual or property right to these benefits by virtue of their 
contributions to the system through the years. However, as the cases 
discussed below show, the courts that have examined this issue have 
ruled that people do not have a legal right to these benefits and that 
Congress may change the rules regarding eligibility. The courts have 
ruled that Congress has broad power to reduce, and even terminate, an 
individual's right to benefits.

After the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, Congress has 
occasionally amended the law to deny or reduce benefits to people who 
had previously qualified for benefits. People adversely affected by 
these laws brought cases in federal court challenging the 
constitutionality of these laws. In deciding these cases, the federal 
courts have established a framework for analyzing the constitutionality 
of the laws and have discussed the extent to which individuals have 
legal rights to Social Security benefits.

The Precedent-Setting Decision:

The first time the Supreme Court addressed this issue was in 1960 in 
the case of Flemming v. Nestor, 363 U.S. 603. Nestor, an alien, 
immigrated to the United States in 1913 and after working for a number 
of years became eligible for old age benefits, which he began receiving 
in 1955. In 1956, he was deported for being a member of the Communist 
Party from 1933 to 1939. Membership in the Communist Party became 
grounds for deportation in 1940. The Social Security Act was amended in 
1954 and provided for the termination of old age benefits to an alien 
who is deported after September 1, 1954.[Footnote 24]

Nestor challenged the law on two separate constitutional grounds. 
First, he argued that he had an accrued property right to his Social 
Security benefits and that the law violated the due process clause of 
the Fifth Amendment. Second, he argued the termination of the benefits 
amounts to an ex post facto law or a punishment without a judicial 
trial in violation of Article I and Article III and the Sixth Amendment 
to the Constitution.

The Fifth Amendment states that no person shall be deprived of life, 
liberty, or property without due process of law, nor shall private 
property be taken for public use without just compensation. In this 
case, the Supreme Court held that Nestor had not been deprived of an 
"accrued property right" under the due process clause of the Fifth 
Amendment. The Court noted that entitlement to Social Security benefits 
is based on a worker's earnings record and not on taxes paid. The Court 
stated that a worker's non-contractual interest in benefits cannot be 
analogized to the interest of the holder of an annuity, where the right 
to benefits is based on contractual payments made. The Court also 
stated that to give individuals an accrued property right would deprive 
the Social Security Act of its flexibility to adjust to ever changing 
conditions. The Court relied heavily on section 1104 of the original 
Social Security legislation, still in effect today, in which Congress 
expressly reserves the "right to alter, amend, or repeal any 
provision." See 42 U.S.C.  1304.

The Court went on to state that this does not mean that Congress may 
modify the Social Security Act free of all constitutional restraint. 
The due process clause bars the withholding of non-contractual benefits 
if the statute manifests a patently arbitrary classification, utterly 
lacking in rational justification. The Court analyzed the statute that 
terminated old age benefits to deported aliens under this standard and 
concluded that it was rational for Congress to conclude that the public 
purse should not be utilized to contribute to the support of those 
deported. The Court therefore upheld the constitutionality of the 
statute under the due process clause.

The second issue raised was whether the termination of the benefits 
amounted to an ex post facto law or a punishment without a judicial 
trial in violation of Article I and Article III and the Sixth Amendment 
to the Constitution. An ex post facto law punishes an individual for 
past conduct that was not illegal when the conduct was engaged in. In 
this case, since membership in the Communist Party was not grounds for 
deportation when Nestor was a member, he argued that he could not be 
punished for his membership. The Court held that it did not consider 
the termination of Social Security benefits under these circumstances 
to have been intended as punishment and set the standard that there 
must be unmistakable evidence of punitive purpose before a 
congressional enactment of this kind is struck down.

It should be noted that the case was decided by a five-four margin. 
Three of the dissenters decided that the statute was unconstitutional 
because it violated the due process clause of the Fifth Amendment by 
taking away earned insurance without just compensation. They stated 
that Social Security benefits are an earned right, and people earning 
this benefit should be able to rely on getting the benefits they paid 
for and have been promised. Four justices concluded that the 1954 
amendment was unconstitutional because it imposes a punishment in 
violation of the prohibition against ex post facto laws and without a 
judicial trial. Despite this vigorous dissent, the majority decision is 
still the law today and serves as precedent for challenges to changes 
in the Social Security Act.[Footnote 25]

Other Challenges under the Due Process Clause:

In the 1970s the Supreme Court decided two challenges to provisions in 
the Social Security Act under the due process clause. In Richardson v. 
Belcher, 404 U.S. 78 (1971), Belcher challenged a section of the Social 
Security Act, which requires a reduction, or offset, in Social Security 
disability benefits if the individual is also receiving state worker 
compensation benefits.[Footnote 26] He claimed that he was denied due 
process of law under the Fifth Amendment because his benefits would not 
have been reduced if he had received private insurance instead of 
worker compensation. Citing the framework established under Nestor, the 
Court held that there was a rational basis for the reduction based on 
receiving worker compensation benefits, and it did not violate the due 
process clause. The Court specifically stated that an expectation of 
public benefits does not confer a contractual right to receive the 
expected amounts.

In the second case, Weinberger v. Salfi, 422 U.S. 749 (1975), Mrs. 
Salfi's husband of less than 6 months died and she filed for widow's 
and child's benefits. She was denied benefits on the basis of the 
duration of marriage requirements of the act that define widow and 
child so as to exclude surviving widows and stepchildren who had 
relationships to the deceased wage earner for less than 9 
months.[Footnote 27] Mrs. Salfi argued that since the duration of 
relationship provision was intended to prevent the use of sham 
marriages to secure Social Security benefits, she should be entitled to 
present proof that her marriage was not a sham.

Using the analysis set forth in Nestor and Belcher, the Court held that 
under the due process clause, as long as the statutory goals are 
legitimate and the classification is rationally related to the 
achievement of these goals, then the action of Congress is not so 
arbitrary as to violate the due process clause. Since the duration-of- 
relationship requirement operates to lessen the likelihood of sham 
marriages, it is related to insuring the integrity of the Social 
Security system and has a rational basis. The Court held that the fact 
that the duration of relationship provision may exclude legitimate 
claimants did not make it unconstitutional.

Gender-Based Discrimination Decisions:

The Supreme Court did overturn several provisions of the Social 
Security Act in the 1970s on the basis of gender-based discrimination. 
In Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld, 420 U.S. 636 (1975), Ms. Wiesenfeld, the 
principal support of her family, died in childbirth survived by her 
baby and husband. Her husband applied for survivor's benefits for 
himself and the baby. Benefits were granted to the baby but denied the 
father on the grounds that the Social Security Act allowed for "mother 
benefit's" only to women.[Footnote 28] The Court found that this 
provision deprived women of protection of their families that men 
receive as a result of their employment. The Court rejected the 
argument that since Social Security benefits are non-contractual, 
Congress is not required to provide a covered female employee with the 
same benefits as it provides to a man. The Court held that the due 
process clause forbids gender-based differentiation that results in the 
efforts of female workers covered by Social Security to receive less 
protection for their families than men.

In Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U.S. 199 (1977), Goldfarb applied for 
Social Security survivor benefits after the death of his wife, but 
benefits were denied on the grounds that he had not been receiving at 
least one-half support from his wife when she died. At that time, 
survivor benefits based on the earnings of a deceased husband covered 
by the Social Security Act were payable to his widow, but survivor 
benefits based on the earnings of a deceased wife were payable to the 
widower only if he was receiving at least one-half of his support from 
his deceased wife.[Footnote 29]

The Court held that this gender-based distinction violated the due 
process clause of the Fifth Amendment, following the rationale of the 
Wiesenfeld case. The Court stated that if a classification by gender is 
to survive constitutional challenge, it must serve important 
governmental objectives and must be substantially related to the 
achievement of these objectives. This test is harder to meet than the 
rational basis test, and in this case, the Court held that this gender- 
based distinction was not justified but was based on an unverified 
assumption that wives are usually dependent.

The Supreme Court did uphold a gender-based classification in Califano 
v. Webster, 430 U.S. 313 (1977). The Court upheld a provision of the 
act that allowed women to eliminate more low-earning years than men 
from the calculation of their retirement benefit.[Footnote 30] The 
court found that redressing the disparity in economic condition between 
men and women caused by discrimination is an important governmental 
objective. The Court held that this provision worked directly to remedy 
some part of the effect of this past discrimination and was therefore 
constitutional.

Changes to Benefits as a Result of Social Security Reform:

Changes made to the Social Security Act in the early 1980s as a result 
of Social Security reform led to several important challenges and 
subsequent decisions upholding the changes. An important case that 
involved litigation between the federal government and the states was 
Bowen v. Public Agencies Opposed to Social Security Entrapment, 477 
U.S. 41 (1986). Enacted in 1950, Section 418 of Title 42, United States 
Code, authorizes voluntary participation by states in the Social 
Security system. Until 1983, this section allowed states entering into 
a Section 418 agreement to provide Social Security coverage to state 
employees to terminate these agreements after giving at least 2 years 
notice. In 1983, Congress repealed the termination provision, even 
expressly preventing termination by a state that had already provided 
notice, because of concerns that an increase in terminations had 
threatened the integrity of the system.[Footnote 31] The state of 
California challenged the law, arguing it had a contractual right to 
terminate its Section 418 agreement and that Congress had violated the 
due process clause of the Fifth Amendment by denying the state its 
contractual right without just compensation.

The Supreme Court rejected California's argument that the contract had 
established a property right within the meaning of the Fifth Amendment. 
The Court again relied heavily on Section 1104 of the Social Security 
Act, which reserves to Congress the right to alter, amend or repeal any 
provision. The Court stated that this provision was necessary to 
protect future generations of workers by giving Congress the 
flexibility to meet ever-changing conditions. The Court concluded that 
even though the federal government had entered into a contract with the 
state, Congress had reserved the power to amend the contract through 
legislation.

Another statutory change made in 1983 was a provision denying Social 
Security benefits to incarcerated felons.[Footnote 32] Incarcerated 
felons challenged that provision, but decisions of various Appellate 
Courts in separate cases all upheld this provision. [Footnote 33] The 
courts rejected due process and ex post facto law claims. As to the ex 
post facto law claim, the courts held that the suspension of the 
benefits was not considered a punishment under the strict standard set 
forth in Nestor. The D.C. Court of Appeals stated that Congress came as 
close to the line of unconstitutionality as possible but accepted the 
government's contention that the statute was primarily a cost-saving 
measure that eliminates retirement benefits to individuals whose basic 
needs are already provided at public expense.

One specific change to the Social Security Act pertaining to federal 
judges resulted in a court challenge in Robinson v. Sullivan, 905 F.2d 
1199 (8th Cir. 1990). Prior to 1984, federal judges were not covered by 
the Social Security Act. Congress amended the law to extend Social 
Security coverage to the judiciary, including senior judges performing 
judicial services but not those senior judges who no longer performed 
duties.[Footnote 34] Senior judges performing duties and senior judges 
not performing duties both receive their full salary. Under the 
legislation as enacted in 1984, however, senior judges performing 
duties would have their pay reduced by FICA contributions, but senior 
judges no longer performing duties would not. Congress, realizing the 
inequity in that distinction, delayed effective date of that provision 
of law so that it could enact corrective legislation to exempt senior 
judges performing judicial duties from Social Security coverage. 
However, Congress did not act before the provision went into effect on 
January 1, 1986. Legislation was not signed into law until April 8, 
1986, which made the exemption for senior judges performing duties 
permanent and retroactive to 1983.

Judge Robinson was a senior judge who was still performing duties and 
had worked in covered employment prior to becoming a judge. He needed 
one more quarter to qualify for Social Security benefits, and he 
claimed, after working the first quarter of 1986, that quarter. He was 
determined ineligible for Social Security benefits and challenged that 
determination, arguing that the retroactive application of the 
legislation passed on April 8, 1986, violated his due process rights.

The court held that it must give retroactively applied legislation the 
same deference as legislation applied prospectively. Legislation 
readjusting rights and burdens is not unlawful solely because it upsets 
otherwise settled expectations. The court held that the due process 
clause does not prevent Congress from repealing the right to receive 
Social Security benefits at any time, however settled the beneficiary's 
expectations might be, for any reason that is not arbitrary or utterly 
lacking in rational justification.[Footnote 35]

Summary:

In summary, courts have ruled that the right to Social Security 
benefits is neither contractual nor a vested property right but is 
based entirely on statutory provisions that Congress reserves to itself 
to alter, amend, or repeal. A strong presumption of constitutionality 
attaches to decisions made by Congress in allocating scarce Social 
Security resources, and courts generally have upheld congressional 
amendments to the Social Security Act in pursuit of that goal, even 
where doing so has resulted in some portion of the population being 
excluded from receiving benefits.

[End of section]

Appendix II: Scope and Methodology:

To determine the legal requirements for the statement, we reviewed the 
applicable laws. We determined additional agency goals for the 
statement by interviewing Social Security Administration (SSA) 
officials. We also analyzed caselaw on legal rights to benefits under 
the Social Security program.

To determine the strengths and weaknesses of the current statement, we 
conducted focus groups to gather qualitative information on recipients' 
attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions. We contracted with a marketing and 
advertising research firm, OneWorld Communications, to coordinate and 
moderate six focus groups. The focus groups were conducted in Seattle, 
Chicago, and Atlanta to ensure geographic diversity. In each city we 
conducted two focus groups--one for participants with some college 
education and below and one for participants with a college degree or 
higher. Each focus group had between 8 and 10 participants. 
Participants were required to be 25 or older, currently not receiving 
Social Security benefits, and not employed by the Social Security 
Administration or in the private pension or financial services fields. 
To encourage focus group participants to speak freely, we wanted to 
avoid having participants from widely divergent income levels within 
the same group. However, given the sensitivity of directly asking 
participants to disclose their income, we instead divided the focus 
groups based on education because of education's close correlation with 
income. To the extent possible, we also balanced the groups for 
ethnicity, gender, and age. Following a GAO-developed discussion guide, 
the moderator asked focus group participants to carefully read and then 
comment on each page of the statement (see app. III). Additionally, 
participants were asked to review a private sector statement from the 
Principal Financial Group (see app. IV). We chose the Principal 
statement as the private sector comparison because it is a defined 
benefit statement that represents a retirement program similar to 
Social Security. The Principal statement was also rated excellent by a 
consulting firm that compares and scores benefit statements based on 
standardized criteria. Only one private sector statement was chosen for 
comparison, given the time constraints of the focus groups. Focus group 
participants were asked to compare the Social Security Statement and 
the Principal statement on length, content, and presentation of 
information.

We also contracted for a national random telephone survey on the 
understandability and usefulness of the statement in conjunction with 
another GAO study on financial literacy. We developed our questions by 
reviewing the statement and reviewing reports from SSA's previous 
surveys and focus groups, as well as by consulting with benefit 
consultants and experts at GAO. We pretested successive drafts of the 
questionnaire with members of various demographic groups and translated 
the survey into Spanish. Overall, a total of 17 pretests were 
conducted, including 5 in Spanish. Additionally, a pilot test of over 
20 random calls resulted in final modifications to the survey. 
Analytica Research, in affiliation with Dove Consulting Group, obtained 
and dialed 9,784 randomly generated phone numbers between July and 
October 2004. The survey oversampled for African American and Hispanic 
respondents, and non-minorities with family incomes under $25,000. We 
received a total of 1,578 usable responses. The contractor took various 
steps to increase the response rate, including scheduling calls 
throughout the week, offering cash incentives, and the mailing of 
postcards to non-responding numbers. The survey's response rate was 48 
percent with a 59 percent cooperation rate.[Footnote 36] The difference 
between the response rate and the cooperation rate suggests that the 
difficulty in contacting anyone on the generated phone numbers was a 
significant factor in the low response rate, because interviewers were 
able to convince nearly 60 percent of those they contacted to complete 
the survey.

Results from sample surveys are subject to error introduced by 
interviewing only a sample of the entire U.S. population, and the 
practical difficulties of conducting any survey may introduce other 
errors into estimates made from surveys. Because we followed a 
probability procedure based on random selections, our sample is only 
one of a large number of samples that we might have drawn, and thus our 
results are subject to sampling error. Since each sample could have 
provided different estimates, we express our confidence in the 
precision of our particular sample's results as a 95 percent confidence 
interval around each estimate--for example, plus or minus 10 percentage 
points. That is, we are 95 percent confident that each of the 
confidence intervals for estimates in this report will include the true 
value that we would have obtained had the entire population been 
surveyed. All percentage estimates from this survey have confidence 
intervals of plus or minus 5 percentage points or less, unless 
otherwise noted.

In addition to the reported sampling errors, the practical difficulties 
of conducting any survey may introduce other types of errors, commonly 
referred to as nonsampling errors. For example, differences in how a 
particular question is interpreted, the sources of information 
available to respondents, or the types of people who do not respond can 
introduce unwanted variability into the survey results. We included 
steps in both the data collection and data analysis stages for the 
purpose of minimizing such nonsampling errors. Some of these steps 
included pretesting questionnaires with members of the population, 
reviewing answers for inconsistencies, and checking computer analyses 
with a second analyst.

In assessing whether certain sections of the statement were more easily 
understood than others, we used a statistical test based on the 
Bonferroni inequality that accounted for all comparisons that could be 
made across sections. The use of this multiple comparison test assures 
us that the confidence level for any statistically significant 
difference between sections is more than 95 percent.

Additionally, we contracted with Dalbar, a consulting firm that 
evaluates written communications from financial service firms to their 
customers and the same company that rated the Principal statement as 
excellent, to review the statement. Dalbar evaluated the statement 
against its standardized rating criteria, which are based on customer 
needs and preferences. Dalbar's report documented the scores achieved 
by the statement, maximum obtainable scores, explanations for lost 
points and recommendations for improvements, as well as how the 
statement compares with industry averages and benchmarks.

We determined how SSA is evaluating the statement through interviews 
and review of documents. We interviewed SSA officials about their 
current evaluation processes, including the use of surveys, focus 
groups, and information from internal sources such as their call 
centers, field offices, and Web site. We also reviewed past survey and 
focus group reports including the Public Understanding Measurement 
System (PUMS) survey questionnaires from 1998 to 2004, the contractor's 
survey summary reports for 1998 to 2003, as well as the survey and 
focus group reports about (1) the initial Personal Earnings and Benefit 
Estimate Statements (PEBES), (2) the four prototypes of the new 
statement, (3) an Internet statement, (4) a revised insert, and (5) the 
inclusion of age-specific messages. We also reviewed a 2002 SSA 
Inspector General report on the reliability of the data used to measure 
public knowledge of SSA.

To describe how private sector benefits consultants develop and assess 
the understandability of their benefit statements, we visited several 
benefits consultants, conducted interviews, and observed examples of 
their statements. We spoke to these benefits consultants about industry 
best practices for preparing an effective and understandable statement 
and in some cases asked the consultants to assess the strengths and 
weaknesses of the current Social Security Statement. In some cases, we 
obtained sample statements from these benefits consultants, which are 
included in appendix IV.

To describe how other industrialized countries develop and assess the 
understandability and effectiveness of their public pension system 
statements, we interviewed officials from the respective countries and 
observed examples of their statements. We also gathered information 
from officials in the countries we spoke with regarding their 
experiences with statement distribution, which included discussions on 
frequency of delivery and in some cases the intended recipients of 
their statements. In some cases, we obtained sample statements from 
these countries, one of which is included in appendix V.

To select the benefits consultants that we interviewed, we first 
selected the top three statement preparers as ranked by Dalbar. We used 
Dalbar's 2003 ranking for defined benefit plan statements, which ranked 
CIGNA, Principal, and MassMutual as the top three preparers of defined 
benefit pension plan statements. We also selected three other benefit 
consulting firms that have practices dedicated to benefit statement 
design. Finally, we discussed industry best practices in statement 
preparation with officials from a nonprofit retirement organization and 
academia.

To select the industrialized countries whose officials we interviewed, 
we performed literature searches using the Internet, past GAO reports, 
and public pension-related journals and articles to determine which 
countries provide their citizens with a public pension statement. We 
determined through our search that Canada, Sweden, and the United 
Kingdom all provided statements to their citizens and all of them had 
been doing so for several years, increasing the possibility that they 
may have developed some best practices. We performed our interviews and 
other correspondence with officials in these countries via telephone 
conferences and e-mail.

[End of section]

Appendix III: 2004 Social Security Statement:

[See PDF for image]

Note: The highlighting on pages 2 through 4 shows the information 
legally required to be included in the statement. Also, the original 
statement is a two-color document.

[End of figure] 

[End of section]

Appendix IV: Examples of Private Sector Retirement Statements:

[See PDF for image]

Note: This statement was used in our focus groups and is a multicolor 
document.

Note: The original statement is a multicolor document.

Note: The original statement is a multicolor document.

[End of figure] 

[End of section]

Appendix V: Example of a Statement from Canada:

[See PDF for image]

Note: The original statement is a tri-fold and a multicolor document.

[End of figure]

[End of section]

Appendix VI: Comments from the Social Security Administration:

SOCIAL SECURITY:

The Commissioner:

March 18, 2005:

Ms. Barbara D. Bovbjerg Director, Education, Workforce, and Income 
Security Issues Room 5968:

U.S. Government Accountability Office Washington, D.G. 20548:

Dear Ms. Bovbjerg:

Thank you for the opportunity to review and comment on the draft report 
"Social Security Statements: Social Security Administration Should 
Better Evaluate Whether Workers Understand Their Statements" (GAO-05- 
192). Our comments on the draft report content and recommendations are 
enclosed.

If you have any questions, please contact Candace Skurnik, Director, 
Audit Management and Liaison Staff, at (410) 965-4636.

Sincerely,

Signed by: 

Jo Anne B. Barnhart: 

Enclosure:

COMMENTS ON THE GOVERNMENT ACCOUNTABILITY OFFICE (GAO) DRAFT REPORT 
"SOCIAL SECURITY STATEMENTS: SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION SHOULD 
BETTER EVALUATE WHETHER WORKERS UNDERSTAND THEIR STATEMENTS" (GAO-05- 
192):

Thank you for the opportunity to review and comment on the draft 
report's contents and recommendations. We agree that the Social 
Security Statement (the Statement) represents one of the Federal 
government's largest efforts to communicate directly with workers about 
their Social Security benefits. We assure you that the Social Security 
Administration (SSA) is committed to providing this important 
information in a clear and understandable manner.

We are pleased that the report identified the Statement's strengths as:

* Written in easy-to-understand language;

* Providing benefit estimates for different retirement ages as well as 
for disability and survivors payments;

* Identifying the Statement's source and purpose; and:

* Providing the personal data used to calculate benefits, such as date 
of birth and earnings record, so recipients can check information for 
accuracy.

We are also pleased to know that the results of the review showed that:

* Focus group participants found their earnings history and benefit 
estimates understandable and useful; and:

* The Statement was comprehensive and strong in its presentation of 
benefits and use of plain language.

Our response to the specific recommendations and some technical 
comments are provided below.

Recommendation 1:

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.

Response:

We agree. We anticipate we will have a plan drafted by the end of 
fiscal year 2005 for regularly evaluating the Statement.

Recommendation 2:

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, for 
example:

* Showing the personalized benefit information first;

* Using graphics to aid readers in quickly comprehending information; 
and:

* Providing information to help recipients understand Social Security's 
contribution to their total retirement income.

Response:

We agree. We will consider revising the Statement as appropriate and 
necessary. As the first step in the process, we will utilize the 
information contained in this report. To ensure that we conduct an 
effective review, we would appreciate receiving the following research 
cited in the report:

* GAO's focus group report;

* GAO's survey instrument and findings;

* Any reports prepared by the private benefit statement evaluation 
firm; 

* Information obtained from the interviews with representatives of 
private companies that specialize in benefit statement preparation and 
distribution; and:

* Information obtained from discussions with officials from Canada, 
Sweden and the United Kingdom.

Once we evaluate that and other pertinent information, we will consider 
revising the Statement as appropriate and necessary.

Technical Comments:

On pages 33-34, the report should use the terms "widow and child 
benefits," "mother benefits" and "survivor benefits," possessively 
(i.e., "widow's and child's benefits," "mother's benefits" and 
"survivor's benefits) as that is the terminology contained in section 
202 of the Act.

On page 33, the term "duration of marriage" should be used instead of 
"duration of relationship" as it is immaterial how long the couple was 
in a "relationship" if the relationship was not marriage. See section 
216(k) of the Act. 

[End of section]

Appendix VII: GAO Contacts and Staff Acknowledgments:

Contacts:

George A. Scott, Assistant Director (202) 512-5932; 
Richard L. Harada, Analyst-in-Charge (206) 287-4841:

Staff Acknowledgments:

In addition to those named above, Allison Abrams, Amy Anderson, Debra 
Johnson, Michael Morris, Luann Moy, Jennifer Popovic, Daniel Schwimer, 
Andrew Stichman, and Wendy Wierzbicki made important contributions to 
this report.

FOOTNOTES

[1] The board is independent and bipartisan and advises the 
Commissioner of Social Security on policies related to the Social 
Security and the Supplemental Security Income programs.

[2] GAO, SSA Benefit Statements: Well Received by the Public but 
Difficult to Comprehend, GAO/HEHS-97-19 (Washington, DC: December 5, 
1996), and GAO, Social Security: Providing Useful Information to the 
Public, GAO/T-HEHS-00-101 (Washington, DC: April 11, 2000).

[3] Private sector defined benefit plans (plans that promise to provide 
a benefit that is generally based on an employee's salary and years of 
service) are required to furnish plan participants, upon request, a 
statement of their accrued benefits and total nonforfeitable pension 
benefits, if any, which have accrued, or the earliest date on which 
benefits become nonforfeitable. 

[4] A total of 4 credits can be earned in each year. In 2004, 1 credit 
was awarded for each $900 of wages or self-employment income. 

[5] In calculating retirement benefits, SSA averages an individual's 35 
highest years of earnings. 

[6] 42 U.S.C. 1320b-13.

[7] The law requires that only the statements sent to people aged 50 
and older contain actual benefit estimates, but SSA provides benefit 
estimates regardless of age.

[8] The Social Security Statement replaced PEBES in fiscal year 2000.

[9] See GAO/HEHS-97-19. 

[10] Percentage estimates for respondents in our survey are based on a 
sample and are subject to sampling error. Unless otherwise noted, 
estimates from our survey have 95 percent confidence intervals of plus 
or minus 5 percentage points of the estimate. See appendix II for more 
information.

[11] Sixty-four percent of respondents remembered receiving their 
statement. Those who did not remember or who did not know or were 
unsure were prompted with a further description of the statement. 
Fourteen percent of those who were prompted then remembered receiving 
the statement.

[12] This result is statistically significant even after accounting for 
the multiple comparisons that can be made between proportions across 
the five sections. For more information see appendix II. 

[13] Workers who do not have 40 credits do not receive benefit 
estimates but are told how many credits they have and how many they 
will need before they become eligible for benefits.

[14] Pay-as-you-go means the taxes paid by today's workers and their 
employers are used to pay the benefits for today's retirees and other 
beneficiaries.

[15] The windfall elimination provision affects the calculation of 
retirement or disability benefits if the worker received a pension from 
work where Social Security taxes were not taken out of his or her pay. 
A modified formula is used to calculate the benefit amount, resulting 
in a lower Social Security benefit.

[16] Social Security is now taking in more money than it is paying out 
in benefits. The surplus taxes are going into a trust fund, which will 
begin to be used around 2018 when benefits will begin to exceed the 
amount of Social Security taxes collected. The trust funds will then be 
used to help pay benefits until around 2042, at which time the trust 
funds will be depleted. After that, Social Security taxes will only 
cover about 73 percent of beneficiaries full benefits under the current 
system.

[17] Dalbar designates statements that score 80 to 100 points as 
excellent, statements that score 70 to 79 points as very good, and 
statements that score 60 to 69 points as good. 

[18] The Social Security Statement currently provides retirement 
benefit estimates for 62, the individual's full retirement age, and 70.

[19] The private sector statement that focus group participants 
reviewed for comparison is contained in appendix IV.

[20] The PUMS survey was not conducted in 2002.

[21] Results of the 2004 survey were not available at this writing.

[22] SSA has conducted focus groups on other specialized topics 
relating to the statement, such as creating an Internet PEBES (1998), 
revising the insert to the statement (2000), creating age-specific 
messages for the statement (2001), and revising PUMS questions (2004).

[23] A self-mailer is a mailing that is self-contained and does not 
require a separate envelope.

[24] 42 U.S.C.  402(n).

[25] The Court's decision was predicated, in large measure, on an 
examination of the purposes underlying the Social Security Act as well 
as an examination of the way the program was structured to achieve 
these purposes. Thus, a fundamental change to the purpose and the 
structure of the program, such as the creation of individual accounts, 
could lead the courts to revisit the issue of whether individuals have 
accrued property rights or contractual rights.

[26] 42 U.S.C.  424a.

[27] 42 U.S.C.  416(c).

[28] 42 U.S.C.  402(g).

[29] 42 U.S.C.  402(f)(1).

[30] 42 U.S.C.  415(b)(3). Prior to the Court's decision, Congress had 
amended the law and eliminated the gender-based distinction. Pub. L. 
No. 92-603  104(b). 

[31] Pub. L. No. 98-21.

[32] 42 U.S.C.  402(x).

[33] See for example, Jones v. Heckler, 774 F.2d 997 (10th Cir. 1985), 
Peeler v. Heckler, 781 F.2d 649 (8th Cir. 1986), and Wiley v. Bowen, 
824 F.2d 1120 (D.C. Cir. 1987).

[34] Pub. L. No. 98-21.

[35] In the early 1990s, the courts rejected challenges to the 
reduction of benefits under the Social Security windfall elimination 
provision, Das v. Department of HHS, 17 F.3d 1250 (9th Cir. 1994) and 
the excess earnings provision, Brown v. Bowen, 905 F.2d 632 (2nd Cir. 
1990).

[36] We calculated the response rate as the total number of usable 
surveys divided by the total eligible sample called. This is in 
accordance with the American Association for Public Opinion Research 
response rate 3. See www.aapor.org for the formula used. The 
cooperation rate measures the success at completing interviews with 
contacted people who are determined to be eligible. It is defined as 
the number of complete interviews divided by the total number of 
complete and partial interviews, refusals, and callbacks that were 
arranged but not completed.

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