Elaine Weiss, Lead Policy Analyst – Income Security

The National Academy of Social Insurance and AARP will soon be announcing the winners of the 2019 Social Security Policy Innovations Challenge: Ensuring Adequacy for Workers. Through this Challenge, we will identify 3-5 feasible policy proposals that specifically address the income adequacy needs of older workers, who must claim Social Security retirement benefits before their full retirement age due to ill health, an inability to continue to perform physically demanding jobs, or other factors. (This 2019 Challenge in some ways builds on past crowdsourcing efforts the Academy has led over the past decade. As discussed further below, the Academy’s Challenges have produced a range of feasible ideas and policy proposals for strengthening Social Security.)


Focus of the 2019 Challenge: Under the current Social Security benefit structure, early claimants receive substantially reduced monthly benefits throughout their lifetimes. Given that the average retirement benefit is only slightly above the federal poverty level for income, and that most beneficiaries rely on their Social Security benefits as their principal or only source of income, this reduction in benefits likely leaves early claimants without adequate income for the remainder of their lives. This is a significant challenge facing the nation, and so far, policymakers lack a clear plan of action. With the results of this 2019 Challenge, we seek to provide impetus for evidence-based policy action.


Policy Innovation Challenges at the National Academy of Social Insurance

For over a decade, the Academy has used “Policy Innovation Challenges” to help unearth previously overlooked options for strengthening the nation’s social insurance programs, with a particular focus on  Social Security due to its central role in protecting Americans from a variety of common life risks. Essentially, an innovation challenge is a form of crowdsourcing – one that relies on a more structured process to gather, evaluate, and hone promising ideas.

While expertise does not always lead to innovation, when it comes to public policy, crowdsourcing is more fruitful when the crowd has a certain level of familiarity with the subject matter. As a membership organization comprised of over 1,000 of the nation’s top experts in social insurance and related areas, the Academy is a natural hub for “Policy Innovations Challenges” around social insurance. Academy Members come from a variety of disciplines and organizational backgrounds, which is another key factor for a successful crowdsourcing and innovation process. We are also an organization focused on increasing public understanding, so we aim to reach not just policy experts but also beneficiaries and advocates for stakeholders of the programs.

With the 2019 Challenge, we sought to improve the process with a full-day ‘”facilitated discussion” where potential participants with less Social Security expertise (but nonetheless valuable knowledge and perspectives to add) could learn more about Social Security in order to develop a feasible policy proposal. Preliminary results of the 2019 Challenge indicate that this interaction among various levels of expertise and backgrounds further supports the necessary conditions for policy innovation.


Brief recap of results from prior Policy Innovation Challenges

2008: Innovation Awards to Strengthen Social Security for Vulnerable Groups

This early “Policy Innovation Challenge,” part of the Rockefeller Foundation’s Campaign for America’s Workers, produced a dozen winners, including a proposal for “Strengthening Social Security for Workers in Physically Demanding Occupations” (highlighting an issue that is a focus of our 2019 Social Security Policy Innovations Challenge). The winning proposals also included ideas for providing targeted support for elderly Americans experiencing long-term homelessness, family elder caregivers, and widows and widowers. The summary report from this Innovation Challenge provides background information on the pros and cons of common strategies to ensure Social Security’s long-term solvency. And the twelve winning papers, available as part of a comprehensive report on the project/challenge, offer ideas that, a decade later, remain highly relevant for various constituencies that particularly rely on the program.


2010-2011: Innovative Projects to Strengthen Social Security for Vulnerable Populations (Grassroots Outreach and Education Initiatives)

In this program, the Academy collaborated with the Ford Foundation to address a different aspect of the Social Security conundrum: how to get more of the constituencies with the biggest stake in the program’s long-term solvency more engaged in advocating for it? Ironically, it may be the very stability and ubiquity of Social Security that renders it periodically vulnerable. This includes attempts to undermine it through calls for privatization in the 1980s and 2000s, and as well as assertions that it will no longer be available for younger generations, even though economic trends suggest that today’s Millennials may actually need Social Security’s protections even more. Because it is just there, paid into every pay period and paid out every month, Americans do not have the regular opportunity to debate Social Security as they do policies that require periodic appropriation. So the Academy issued a call for proposals from organizations to educate people “outside the beltway” about its critical importance, develop user-friendly education materials, and build advocacy among vulnerable groups, like communities of color, women, people with disabilities, low-wage workers, and children.

Nine national and grassroots organizations received grants in the first round, another fourteen received awards in a second round later that year, and in a third round the following April, ten more awards were given. Many of these awardees continue to be important advocates in for Social Security. For example, Generations United works to break down barriers between post-retirement and pre-retirement Americans, and Latinos for a Secure Retirement continue to educate Latinos of all ages about their stake in Social Security.


2016: AARP Policy Innovation Challenge: Social Security Adequacy and Solvency

The Academy supported AARP’s efforts with a full-day forum to explore and debate ideas presented by the winners of AARP’s Policy Innovation Challenge, as well as other retirement security experts.


What’s next? Stay tuned in July and in the following months as we share the results of this year’s Social Security Policy Innovations Challenge. Each winning proposal will receive an award of up to $20,000-$25,000. For more information about Policy Innovation Challenges at the Academy, please contact: Elaine Weiss at eweiss@nasi.org.

Posted on: June 14, 2019

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