The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers the Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides an income supplement for meeting basic needs to about 8 million aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income and assets. In light of Executive Order 13985 on Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government, making sure that everyone who is eligible for SSI benefits receives them is a priority and can be a challenge. OES is building evidence on what works to help ensure that those who are eligible for SSI receive it.

Research indicates that SSI has one of the lowest uptake rates among federal programs in the United States.¹ ² The COVID-19 pandemic posed new challenges for those that might be eligible, as limitations related to the pandemic made it even harder for already vulnerable groups to get information about their potential SSI eligibility.

To respond to these challenges, SSA sent letters to about 200,000 Social Security beneficiaries who might be eligible for SSI between December 2020 and March 2021.

Next, SSA created revised letters, which included information about the maximum SSI benefit. From June to November 2021, SSA released 1.2 million mailers on a staggered schedule, paused to avoid increased call months, and resumed the issuance of mailers from April 2022 to December 2022. In April 2022, SSA also released a supplemental fact sheet for people with limited earnings about SSI and other benefits to clarify SSI and other benefits eligibility.

How did SSA identify these changes in policy as potential solutions to low rates of SSI uptake?

An OES evaluation provided useful evidence to support these innovations. In an evaluation published in 2018, OES worked with SSA to identify ways to increase SSI uptake among older adults, evaluating the effect of a letter sent to individuals who SSA identified as potentially eligible for SSI based on their age. The team hypothesized a few possible reasons for low SSI enrollment: maybe people weren’t aware of their eligibility or how to apply, maybe they underestimated the potential payment, or maybe they thought the application would be confusing or burdensome. To identify the best solution, OES designed four letters: (1) a basic letter; (2) a letter which states the maximum benefit; (3) a letter which states that applying is simple; (4) a letter combining the maximum benefit element and the “applying is simple” element.

SSA used administrative data to identify over 4 million individuals aged 65-80 who were potentially eligible for SSI based primarily on a low Social Security benefit, and sent one of four letter variations to 400,000 of them. A control group of over 3 million people were not sent any notification, in keeping with SSA practice.

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 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. This evidence was the impetus for change in the content of SSA’s more recent mailers, which include maximum benefit information.

The results of the OES study were highlighted in 2020 op-eds urging for an expansion of the intervention piloted in the study to reach eligible individuals and extending it to disabled individuals. In early 2021, an NPR story emphasized that the drop in SSI applications during the COVID-19 pandemic was not evenly distributed, with particularly damaging effects for non-English speakers and people over 65 years old, and noted again that mailings like those used in the study could be a solution.

SSA’s public statements on service delivery emphasize their efforts towards outreach to vulnerable populations, including establishing a workgroup in 2020 on SSI/SSDI Administrative Simplifications and Evidence-Based Outreach to address outreach to vulnerable populations.

The initial OES study explored the effects of tailored mailings on SSI applications. A follow-on study from the Georgetown Better Government Lab and OES, funded through SSA’s Retirement and Disability Research Center through the Center for Financial Security at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will explore how SSI awards affect recipient mortality.

In combination, these studies will help policymakers understand how to continue to implement policy changes to effectively encourage SSI uptake and improve recipient outcomes.

A timeline showing media coverage and evidence-based policy commitments following the OES evaluation in 2018. Expand image


  1. Strand, Alexander, Kalman Rupp and Paul S. Davies. 2019. “Measurement Error in Estimates of the Participation Rate in Means-Tested Programs: The Case of the US Supplemental Security Income Program for the Elderly.” Proceedings of the Federal Committee on Statistical Methodology Research Conference. Available at
  2. McGarry, Kathleen, and Robert Schoeni. 2015. “Understanding participation in SSI.” Michigan Retirement Research Center Working Paper WP 2015-319.