A Behavioral Economics Assessment of SSDI Earnings Reporting Documents

WP#2020-15

Abstract

This study uses insights from the behavioral economics literature to provide a comprehensive diagnosis of seven SSA written communications that include information on earnings reporting.  We conducted a behavioral assessment of the documents’ contents on earnings reporting to identify bottlenecks that may prevent beneficiaries from taking desired actions in four key domains: notice and open the document, locate and read the material on earnings reporting, decide to act, and act. The findings from this exercise are only suggestive and the extent to which modifying any of the components reviewed would affect earnings reporting is unknown.

The paper found that:

  • Only one of the reviewed documents is sent at a time when the reporting requirement is likely to be actionable.
  • Although the documents are generally formatted so that readers can locate material on earnings reporting, much of the text is dense and key content could be missed.
  • The guidance on earnings reporting varies in clarity and salience; no document includes a concrete reporting deadline that would help beneficiaries avoid overpayments.
  • Three of the seven documents provide comprehensive, accessible, and actionable information to facilitate earnings reporting.
  • None of the seven documents reviewed contain communication strategies that are likely to be effective in all four categories.

 
The policy implications of the findings are:

  • In our assessment, potential shortcomings in SSA communications on earnings reporting may contribute to beneficiary lack of awareness about reporting, which other research has linked to overpayments.
  • We provide sample reporting reminders, designed based on behavioral economics insights, as a potential starting point for SSA to consider and test earnings reporting reminders.