The 24th Annual Meeting of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium
The Social Security Administration (SSA) convened its 2022 Retirement and Disability Research Consortium (RDRC) Meeting virtually on August 4–5. The meeting was organized by the NBER RDRC and featured research funded through the NBER RDRC as well as through other RDRC centers based at Boston College, the University of Michigan, and the University of Wisconsin.
Kilolo Kijakazi, Acting Commissioner of SSA, provided welcoming remarks. She pronounced, “the SSA is initiating a systems approach to research. … A systems approach examines the effects of structural barriers on economic and social well-being. These barriers include policies, programs, and institutional practices that facilitate the security and mobility of some groups while impeding that of others.” She added, “research plays an important role in our efforts to identify and address the historical and systemic nature of barriers people are facing.” She noted that many of the research projects undertaken by RDRC centers are contributing to this goal. In addition, RDRC-organized partnerships with HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) and MSIs (Minority Serving Institutions) and training programs for young researchers of color are helping to integrate the perspective, insight, and expertise of scholars of color, which have been lacking in this body of research. She concluded, “the Consortium has significantly expanded the knowledge base on Social Security, retirement, and disability issues… informing major priorities of the agency.”
Marcella Alsan, professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and NBER Research Associate, provided a keynote address, “Representation and Rules.” She began by noting that representation in surveys matters because survey data are used for many purposes, including research and allocation of resources, and because representation can affect the legitimacy of the outcome of processes that rely on the data. She presented evidence that the Black population is underrepresented in major surveys such as the US Census as well as in clinical trials. She also presented some of her own research showing that having higher Black representation in clinical trials makes both Black patients and the doctors who treat them more likely to use the new treatment. She then noted that the rules built into programs like Social Security can have equity impacts due to the different life experiences of different groups. She concluded by noting that better representation can change the rules and that rules can change who gets represented. She urged researchers to ask questions such as: Where do data come from? How were the data collected? Who is missing? When were the rules created? How do they impact inequality?
A number of researchers with the NBER or with NBER RDRC affiliations presented research findings.
In Panel 1: Understanding Disparities in Retirement and Disability, NBER Research Associate Ellen Meara presented key insights from “Structural Barriers to Receipt of Income Support and Health Insurance among Adults with Disabilities by Race and Ethnicity” (project NB22-09), coauthored with NBER Research Associate David M. Cutler and Rand Obeidat. The researchers analyze trends in the disability review process for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), as well as how SSDI application and award rates vary across racial/ethnic groups. The disability review process has become more stringent and SSDI application and enrollment have contracted, reflecting the impacts of SSA field office closures, more technical denials, and reduced allowance rates on medical decisions. Between 1999 and 2014, applications and SSDI receipt among non-Hispanic Black and White workers increased, while the increased rates among Asian and Hispanic adults were comparatively flatter.
In Panel 2: Improving Social Security Knowledge, Stephen Spiller presented findings from “The Role of Stock-Flow Reasoning in Understanding the Social Security Trust Fund” (project NB22-15), coauthored with Hal E. Hershfield, NBER Research Associate Suzanne Shu, and Megan E. Weber. The researchers consider, across two experimental studies, how the framing of information about the Social Security trust funds affects consumers’ perceptions of what will happen to benefit payouts as a result of their depletion. They find that presenting information in terms of a stock by showing graphs that reference the balances of the trust funds leads to more inaccurate perceptions relative to presenting information in terms of flows by using graphs that show income and costs. However, more than half of participants who were presented information in terms of flows still answered objective questions about payouts incorrectly.
In Panel 4: Factors Affecting Disability and Disability Benefit Receipt, NBER Research Associate Nicole Maestas presented “Legal Representation in Disability Claims” (project NB19-Q8), coauthored with NBER Research Associate Hilary W. Hoynes and Alexander Strand. Using geographic variation in access to disability law firms, the researchers find that legal representation leads to more approvals at the initial stage, fewer appeals, and no detectable change in final allowance rates; thus legal representation leads to earlier disability awards to individuals who would otherwise be awarded benefits on appeal. A nontechnical summary of the authors’ research can be found here.
In Panel 5: Factors Driving Trends in Health and Disability, project leader Randall Akee (on leave from the NBER) and NBER Research Associate Emilia Simeonova presented “How Do Increases in Earned and Unearned Income Affect Health? Evidence from Native American Tribal Casinos” (project NB22-05), coauthored with Sonya Porter. The researchers examine the effects of unearned income transfers from tribal casino operations on the mortality of Native American and other populations residing on reservations. They find that while casino operations alone do not have any differential effects on all-cause mortality, unearned cash transfers reduce Native American mortality. Also, those younger than 70 benefit from cash transfers more relative to those older than 75.
The agenda and summaries of the conference papers are available.