Fact Sheet: The EBRI Social Security Research Program

(updated August 14, 2007)

Since its founding in 1978, The Employee Benefit Research Institute (EBRI) has provided objective research and education about Social Security. Anticipating that the Social Security reform debate would soon surface as a central policy issue, EBRI established the Social Security Research Program in 1996. One objective of the program is to provide policymakers as well as members of the media and the public with neutral, clear analysis about the complex and sometimes confusing issues surrounding Social Security reform. As one reporter told EBRI, "I've covered a lot of complicated finance and policy issues in my time, but Social Security reform is the most difficult by far." The complexity of the Social Security reform debate is partially captured in EBRI's November 1998 Issue Brief and Special Report, "Individual Social Security Accounts: Issues In Assessing Administrative Feasibility and Costs." Further analysis was provided at EBRI's December 2, 1998 policy forum in Washington, DC, entitled "Beyond Ideology: Are Individual Social Security Accounts Feasible?"  As the debate surrounding individual accounts continued, the November 1998 Issue Brief and Special Report was updated in EBRI's September 2001 Issue Brief, "Individual Social Security Accounts: Administrative Issues." 

Another objective of the Social Security Research Program is to provide analysis from computer simulation tools for comparing Social Security reform options. SSASIM has been used extensively by the program to conduct policy simulation analysis.

EBRI's analyses using SSASIM examines changes in the economy's inflation rate, labor force participation rate, productivity growth rate, and unemployment rate and level of net immigration on the 75-year actuarial balance of the program.  Prior to those analyses, EBRI followed up on a previous analysis of the Archer-Shaw Plan, which is an individual account proposal funded by general revenue transfers that included a "clawback" provision. In the follow-up report, the Archer-Shaw plan is compared to traditional reform options by using the stochastic capabilities of SSASIM.  Previously, certain specific reform proposals introduced in Congress were evaluated for persons born in 1946 and after on benefits and payback ratios.  The results can be found in the June 1999 EBRI Issue Brief "Social Security Reform: Evaluating Current Proposals."  In addition, prior analysis centered on assessing the effects of generic reform options on persons born after 1976. Results are summarized in the March 1998 Issue Brief, "How Do Individual Social Security Accounts Stack Up?"   In the October 2000 EBRI Notes, the impact of workers' earnings profiles on individual account accumulation was investigated using SSASIM. 

Although policy simulation models are a central feature, EBRI’s Social Security Research Program goes beyond the provision of quantitative tools and analysis. For example, the most salient administrative issues facing the current debate on adding individual accounts to Social Security were discussed in the November 1998 EBRI Issue Brief "Individual Social Security Accounts: Issues in Assessing Administrative Feasibility and Costs," which was updated in a September 2001 Issue Brief.   Furthermore, EBRI's December 2, 1998 Policy Forum provided additional analysis on the feasibility of individual Social Security accounts. A book that includes the papers presented and comments from the forum was published in March 1999. The results of a survey of small employers on their attitudes about possible administrative scenarios of individual Social Security accounts are summarized in the April 1999 EBRI Notes article entitled "Small Employer Survey on Individual Social Security Account Administration."  In addition, various reform proposals are summarized in EBRI Notes articles "Keeping Track of Social Security Reforms: A Summary," "Keeping Track of Social Security Reforms: An Update," and, "Chilean Social Security Reform as a Prototype for Other Nations."  The March 1997 EBRI Issue Brief, entitled "A Framework for Analyzing and Comparing Social Security Policies" provides a broad overview of the debate by exploring 11 areas of consideration under which current law and proposed reforms must be examined to ensure fair, objective, and comprehensive comparisons.  Moreover, at the request of President George W. Bush's Commission to Strengthen Social Security, EBRI prepared the August 2001 EBRI Special Report on public and employer opinion on Social Security reform.

In 2005, EBRI's Social Security Research Program licensed the computer simulation model GEMINI from the Policy Simulation Group. This model allows for more in depth analysis at the birth cohort level. The latest studies from the program use results from this model along with SSASIM. In Comparing Social Security Reform Options, EBRI Issue Brief, May 2005, Model 2 from the 2001 President's Commission to Strengthen Social Security is compared on a cohort basis with other benchmark reform options that achieve 75-year actuarial balance. The comparisons are focused on initial benefit levels and on the ratios of lifetime benefits received to lifetime taxes paid. In the July 2005 EBRI Notes, the effect of preserving disability benefits at current law levels on the necessary changes to retirement benefits is examined for the same reform options as in the May 2005 EBRI Issue Brief. Further work using GEMINI and SSASIM examined the percentage of OASI beneficiaries whose benefits would be below the poverty level under various Social Security reforms for the 1942-2022 birth cohorts (evey ten years). These results were published in the April 2006 EBRI Notes. Concluding this series of publications is a study, June 2006 EBRI Notes, determining the change in the distribution of the benefit levels beneficiaries would receive under various Social Security reform proposals. This analysis also calculates for various age cohorts the amount of savings that would need to be accumulated in order to purchase a payout annuity (an insurance product that provides regular stream of income for life) that would compensate for the decrease in benefits from these alternatives, relative to current-law benefits.

Description of SSASIM

  • a social security policy simulation model under continuous development since 1994, when started as part of the Social Security Administration Advisory Council's work
  • two models in one: macro model of aggregate program finances, and embedded micro model of cohort individuals that can represent a wide range of policy reforms including individual accounts
  • macro model: operates in cell-based actuarial (CBA) mode by default, or in overlapping cohorts (OLC) mode with the optional GEMINI add-on; both modes represent systemic risks facing program using Monte Carlo simulation of thirteen key demographic and economic assumptions plus equity returns; produces output like in Trustees' Reports
  • micro model: operates in exemplary cohort individuals (ECI) mode by default, or in representative cohort sample (RCS) mode with the optional GEMINI add-on; both modes use logic similar to other microsimulation models of birth cohorts; both modes project all systemic risks simulated by macro model onto individuals; RCS mode also represents idiosyncratic risks facing individuals regarding mortality, disability, labor force participation, earnings fluctuations, marriage, divorce, and childbirth; both modes produce a wide array of benefit adequacy and contribution return (i.e., "money's worth") statistics for individuals and couples
  • more information on SSASIM can be found in the Introductory Guide to SSASIM at the Polciy Simulation Group's website (more information on GEMINI can also be found on the Policy Simulation Group's website)

EBRI's Role: Provider of Objective Education, Analysis, and Research Tools

As a neutral voice among advocates for one side of reform or another, EBRI is providing analysis for informed policy decision-making. If you or your organization would like to learn more about the Social Security Research Program, please contact:

Craig Copeland,  Director of the Social Security Research Program, (202) 659-0670, copeland@ebri.org