Panel Paper: Communicating Program Eligibility: A Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Field Experiment

Thursday, November 8, 2018
8224 - Lobby Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Elana Safran, Office of Evaluation Sciences / U.S. General Services Administration, Jeffrey Hemmeter, Social Security Administration, John Phillips, National Institutes of Health and Nicholas Wilson, U.S. General Services Administration; Reed College

Survey data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) suggest that less than 60% of individuals age 65 and over who are eligible for Supplemental Security (SSI) receive the benefit. SSI is a Federal income supplement program, that is designed to help aged, blind, and disabled people, who have little or no income; and provides cash to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter. The economic literature has identified at least three main barriers to SSI take-up among individuals age 65 and over. First, individuals may not be aware that they are eligible for SSI (SSA 1976, Warlick 1982), which may be a particularly important barrier for individuals for whom being age 65 and over partly determines eligibility. Second, the expected magnitude of benefits affects take-up (McGarry 2000, McGarry and Schoeni 2015), with individuals with lower expectations about benefits less likely to participate in SSI. Third, potential SSI participants may view the application process as confusing and burdensome (Warlick 1982, McGarry 1996, McGarry and Schoeni 2015).

We designed four letters to test these hypotheses using a randomized controlled field experiment with over 4 million individuals age 65-80 whose monthly benefit is less than the SSI Federal Benefit Rate. Individuals were assigned to receive one of these four letter types through US mail or to a control condition (i.e. business as usual):

  1. the basic letter,
  2. the maximum benefit letter,
  3. the simplifying application process letter, and
  4. a letter combining the maximum benefit and the simplifying application letters.

All letters include the basic information listed on Letter (1), allowing us to measure the incremental effect of the information on a more detailed letter (e.g., the maximum benefit statement on Letter (2)) by comparing take-up among recipients of the more detailed letter (e.g., Letter (2)) to take-up among recipients of Letter (1). Comparing take-up among recipients of Letter (1) to take-up among the control group (i.e., individuals not receiving a letter) yields an estimate of the effect of only being notified that it is likely that you are eligible. Letters were sent to 100,000 people in each of 4 letter conditions in September 2017, and the remainder served as a control.

We tracked SSI application filing, SSI application allowed (i.e. approved), and SSI payments using administrative data from the Social Security Administration at three, six, and nine months following the letters being sent.

We will also conduct analyses that adjust the above results for beneficiary characteristics (e.g., age, sex, state of residence, previous SSI experience, etc.). We will conduct similar analyses after six and nine months to allow sufficient time for beneficiaries to respond to the notices. The full analysis will also draw conclusions about which version of the letter was most effective at encouraging applications and awards, and will explore the reasons why individuals were denied SSI if they applied. The APPAM presentation will be based on the nine-month results.