A recently released working paper gives details on how OES-designed letters to older adults quadrupled awards for Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

The evaluation is particularly relevant in light of the Social Security Administration’s (SSA) national outreach campaign to assist vulnerable populations during the COVID-19 pandemic, while in-person appointments at Social Security field offices are limited. SSI is a monthly means-tested cash payment to people who have low income and assets and are disabled, blind, or age 65 or older. The payments are meant to guarantee a minimum monthly income — set at $755 in 2017, when OES took part in a pilot with the Social Security Administration (SSA).

OES collaborated with SSA to evaluate the effect of a letter sent to individuals who were potentially eligible for SSI based on their age. To determine who might be eligible to receive the benefit, SSA used administrative data to identify individuals aged 65-80 who were receiving monthly Social Security payments less than the SSI benefit rate ($755 per month) but not currently receiving SSI. Over four million people fit this criteria, and SSA sent letters to about ten percent of those identified, or 400,000 people in total.

The letters increased SSI awards by 340 percent in the months after they were sent: Among individuals who were sent a letter, 2.3 percent were awarded SSI, compared to 0.5 percent of individuals who were not sent a letter. The monthly SSI payment for individuals who were sent a letter and were awarded the benefit was $185 per month. For context, if the only income these individuals have is their Social Security benefit, then this SSI award represents a 32 percent increase in total income. In most states, the benefit also includes Medicaid eligibility, and, once an individual receives the benefit, SSA re-determines eligibility every one to six years.

The increase represents about 6,960 additional low-income elderly receiving SSI; if the same letters were sent to all four million people identified by SSA’s administrative data, this would have translated to a likely increase in SSI participation of over 63,000 low-income elderly.

Cost estimates suggest that letters that increase take-up by any letter constitute a meaningful effect size from the perspective of policy relevance or program impact. Mailing a letter to a single recipient has a one time cost of $0.46. With 6,960 new awards as a result of these letters, this yields a cost-per-new award of about $27 — a small amount compared to the average monthly award of $185 for individuals in the pilot.

The new working paper details impacts by individual characteristics, and shows that the letters had the largest effects on widows, younger individuals, people in states where an SSI award also includes Medicaid eligibility, and people with a lower potential SSI amount — important populations to consider, as the Administration supports underserved communities.

For more information about the working paper, intervention pack, and project abstract, see the project page here.