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Retirement Research Consortium

The Retirement Research Consortium (RRC) consists of three multidisciplinary centers housed in three separate institutions (Boston College, the University of Michigan, and the National Bureau of Economic Research) and is funded through cooperative agreements with the Social Security Administration. The current five-year cooperative agreements run from FY2014 through FY2018.

The RRC has three main goals:

  • Research and evaluate a wide array of topics related to Social Security and retirement policy,
  • Disseminate information on Social Security and retirement issues relevant to policymakers, researchers, and the general public, and
  • Train scholars and practitioners in research areas relevant to
    Social Security and retirement issues.

Read More About…
the RRC's evolution and research contributions in a series of articles in the Social Security Bulletin.

To meet these goals, the centers perform many activities. They conduct research, prepare policy briefs and working papers, hold an annual meeting, and provide research and training support for young scholars. Links to recent RRC research are provided below. For further information about RRC activities, affiliated institutions, or individual researchers, please visit the websites of the respective institutions:

Recent RRC Research

View RRC Research by Priority Research Area | View Archived Research

Abstracts:show all / hide all
May 2014

The Effect of Increasing Earnings Dispersion on Social Security Payroll Tax Receipts

by Richard Kopcke, Zhenyu Li, and Anthony Webb
SSA Project # BC11-06
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College Working Paper 2014-6

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This paper decomposes trends in the distribution of earnings over the period 1982–2009 and calculates the effect of increases in dispersion in wage and salary earnings on revenues from the U.S. Social Security Old-Age and Survivors Insurance payroll tax. This tax is levied on earnings, up to a maximum that, with minor changes, has been indexed since 1975 to movements in average wages. If the earnings of very high earners increase more rapidly than those of individuals with earnings below the taxable maximum, the percentage of total earnings that is subject to the tax will decrease and tax revenues will be lower than would otherwise be the case. Using the Continuous Work History Sample (CWHS), we show that most of the increase in the dispersion of wage and salary earnings over the above period was the result of increases of within-cohort, rather than between-cohort, earnings disparities. Between?cohort disparities increased among women, but not among men. The increases in earnings dispersion would have resulted in a substantial decline in the percentage of workers earning more than the taxable maximum, had it not been for the aging of the outsize boomer cohort into their peak earning years. The percentage of total earnings subject to the payroll tax has declined substantially. To restore this percentage to the 1982 level would require an increase in the 2009 taxable maximum from $106,800 to $144,248, which would approximate the 97th percentile of the earnings distribution, well above historic norms. We estimate that, if there had been no increase in earnings dispersion, 2009 payroll tax receipts from wage and salary earnings would have been 6 percent higher, of which 4 percent can be attributed to increases in within-cohort dispersion.

The Impact of Mandatory Coverage on State and Local Budgets

by Alicia H. Munnell, Jean-Pierre Aubry, and Anek Belbase
SSA Project # BC13-03
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College Working Paper 2014-9

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The policy option of extending mandatory Social Security coverage to newly hired uncovered state and local workers is often included in packages to eliminate the program's financing shortfall. The arguments for mandatory coverage go beyond financial considerations, though, as extending coverage would bring benefit protections that state and local workers currently lack and would improve equity by more broadly sharing the burden of Social Security's legacy costs. The main argument against mandatory coverage is that it would raise costs to public employers and workers. The actual cost increase depends on the extent to which employers reduce their existing pensions when adopting Social Security. This paper estimates the costs under four different integration strategies: 1) no adjustment to existing pensions; 2) match the level of the first-year benefit; 3) match the lifetime benefit; and 4) match the benefit to levels in neighboring states with Social Security coverage. This analysis is conducted for 22 state-administered plans in 13 states that were identified as lacking coverage. The results show that the cost of adding Social Security varies significantly, with the smallest increase for the “match lifetime benefit” option and the largest increase for the “no adjustment” option. Presenting the additional costs as a percent of payroll may exaggerate their burden on the employer as the increases will likely be split between employer and employee. Perhaps a better way to gauge the size of the cost increase is as a share of a state's budget; this measure shows only a very modest impact.

What Impact Does Social Security Have on the Use of Public Assistance Programs Among the Elderly?

by Norma B. Coe and April Yanyuan Wu
SSA Project # BC12-02
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College Working Paper 2014-5

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Low take-up by the elderly in most federal programs targeted to low-income Americans is a persistent and puzzling phenomenon. This paper seeks to measure how much the benefit levels provided by public assistance programs affect elderly enrollment in two-means tested programs: the Supplement Security Income (SSI) program for disabled individuals and the food stamp program known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Social Security retirement income, while lifting millions of elderly Americans out of poverty, also impacts their eligibility and expected public assistance benefit levels in SSI and SNAP. We use variations in SSI and SNAP benefits introduced by Social Security benefits to try to identify the reasons for the low take-up rate. First, we find that changes in who is eligible for the means-tested programs—before and after receiving Social Security benefits—do not explain the low take-up. However, we find that the level of SSI and SNAP benefits available significantly impacts decisions to participate in both programs, indicating that Social Security does help to explain their low take-up. Second, we find that SSI take-up is much more sensitive to expected program benefit changes than is SNAP enrollment. We estimate that every $100 per month increase in SSI or SNAP benefits leads to a 1-percentage-point increase in the probability of participating in SNAP and a 4-percentage-point increase in the probability of participating in SSI. Together with the fact that eligible individuals continue to participate in SSI more often than they maintain SNAP enrollment, we find evidence that individuals prefer cash over in-kind transfers.
April 2014

Adding Employer Contributions to Health Insurance to Social Security's Earnings and Tax Base

by Karen E. Smith and Eric Toder
SSA Project # BC13-07
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College Working Paper 2014-3

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The inclusion of employer-sponsored health insurance (ESI) in taxable income would increase income and payroll tax receipts, but would also increase Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) benefits by adding ESI to the OASDI earnings base. This study uses the Urban Institute's DYNASIM model to estimate the effects of including ESI premiums in taxable earnings on the level and distribution by age and income groups of income tax burdens, payroll tax burdens, and OASDI benefits. We find that the increased present value of OASDI benefits from including ESI in the wage base in 2014 offsets about 22 percent of increased income and payroll taxes, 57 percent of increased payroll taxes, and 72 percent of increased OASDI taxes. The overall distributions of taxes and benefits by income group follow the same pattern, with both taxes and benefits increasing as a share of income between the bottom and middle quintiles and then declining as a share of income for higher income taxpayers. But households in the bottom income quintiles receive a net benefit from including ESI in the tax base because their increase in OASDI benefits exceeds their increase in income and payroll taxes. Over a lifetime perspective, all earnings groups experience net tax increases, but workers in the middle of the earnings distribution experience the largest net tax increases as a share of lifetime earnings. Higher benefits offset a larger share of tax increases for lower than for higher income groups.

Differential Mortality and Retirement Benefits in the Health and Retirement Study

by Barry P. Bosworth and Kathleen Burke
SSA Project # BC13-04
Center for Retirement Research at Boston College Working Paper 2014-4

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This analysis uses data from the Health and Retirement Study (HRS) to examine the sources of variation in mortality for individuals of varying socio-economic status (SES). The use of the HRS allows a distinction between education and a measure of career earnings as primary determinants of socio-economic status for men and women separately. We use those predictions of mortality to estimate the distribution of annual and lifetime OASDI benefits for different birth cohorts spanning the birth years from 1900 to 1950. We find differential rates of mortality have had substantial effects in altering the distribution lifetime benefits in favor of higher income individuals.