The 25th Annual Meeting of the Retirement and Disability Research Consortium


The Social Security Administration (SSA) convened its 2023 Retirement and Disability Research Consortium (RDRC) Meeting virtually on August 3–4. The meeting 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 the SSA, provided welcoming remarks. She began by remembering Dr. William Spriggs, chair of the Department of Economics at Howard University, chief economist for the AFL-CIO, and a member of the NBER Board of Directors, who passed away in June 2023. She quoted President Joe Biden who said about Dr. Spriggs, “Bill was a towering figure in his field, a trailblazer who challenged the field’s basic assumptions about racial discrimination in labor markets, pay equity, and worker empowerment. His work inspired countless economists to join him in the pursuit of economic justice.”

Regarding the work of the RDRC, she pronounced that “research partnerships like the RDRC benefit the public by providing evidence to support policymaking. Since the agency’s inception, we have relied on research to help us administer our programs.” She added, “Our biggest challenge is an unprecedented backlog of initial disability claims due to many years of insufficient funding combined with the pandemic; 1.1 million people are waiting an average of seven months for a decision.” She noted, “Past research from the RDRC has helped inform improvements and the research you’re conducting today will help with future program development. We are improving race and ethnicity data collection as part of the administration’s whole-of-government approach to advancing equity…To effectively address structural barriers, it is essential to gain the perspectives, insight, and expertise of scholars of color like Bill Spriggs.” She concluded that this integration of the intellect and research of people of color is necessary to accurately identify the root causes of disparities and comprehensively design effective solutions.

A number of researchers with the NBER or with NBER RDRC affiliations presented research findings.

In Panel 3: Improving Communication and OutreachDayo Oyeleye presented key insights from “Utilizing Online Services to Proactively Support Beneficiaries in Underserved Communities” (project NB23-12). Oyeleye explores how beneficiaries in underserved communities would like to receive information from SSA about their benefits. In his research, there are four central questions: Do older individuals like to receive SSA communications electronically, by mail, or from an SSA field office? If electronically, do they prefer text messaging, email, or online interaction through my Social Security, and what is the preferred frequency of contact? Do these preferences vary by whether the older individual has claimed retirement benefits? Is receipt of communications in a preferred style associated with greater understanding of benefit information and other program rules? He concludes that there is a preference for traditional communication methods, such as the US Postal system, a desire for plain language information, and the potential for greater community outreach efforts and education interventions for both SSA staff and beneficiaries to improve program understanding.

In Panel 4: Economic Security of SSA Beneficiaries, NBER Research Associate Bruce D. Meyer presented findings from “Measuring Economic Security Using Linked Consumer Expenditure and Administrative Data” (project NB23-05), coauthored with Aaron Hong, Connor Murphy, James X. Sullivan, and Derek Wu. The researchers link survey and administrative data to construct more accurate measures of income and consumption for examining poverty and the economic security of the elderly. Blending data provides a more complete picture by capturing underreported income sources. The authors find lower poverty rates for the elderly than reported in official statistics when using the blended data and consumption measures. They conclude this approach that links survey and administrative data yields valuable insights into economic security not captured in survey data alone.

In Panel 6: Informing Trust Fund Projections, Hanke Heun-Johnson presented “The Effect of US COVID-19 Excess Mortality on Social Security Outlays” (project NB23-02), coauthored with Bryan Tysinger and NBER Research Associates Darius N. Lakdawalla and Julian Reif. The researchers employ a microsimulation approach to assess the COVID-19 mortality burden. Based on a CDC estimate of 1.8 million excess deaths as of January 2023, the study estimates a total of 24 million life years lost. On average, Blacks and Hispanics experience more life years lost than Whites. It is projected that surviving children of the deceased will receive approximately 2.2 million years of benefits, resulting in a total payout of $28 billion. Additionally, there is an estimated payroll tax loss of around $35 billion due to missed contributions from the deceased. However, there is an expected gap of $12 billion in unpaid disability benefits and the unpaid retirement benefits are estimated to amount to $450 billion. The cumulative effect is a considerable decrease in expenditures for Social Security programs.

In Panel 6: Informing Trust Fund Projections, Ines Guix Sauquet presented “Understanding the Closing of Racial Mortality Gaps” (project NB23-10), coauthored with Michael Stepner and NBER Research Associates Raj Chetty — also the Director of the NBER Public Economics Program, John N. Friedman, and Nathaniel Hendren. This paper is currently under review at a journal that precludes distribution of the findings in print prior to publication, so the researchers have requested that their findings not be summarized at this time. 

The agenda and summaries of the conference papers are available.