Plain language pays off for Social Security

Our Social Security Statement reaches 125 million working Americans every year

We’re proud that we played an instrumental role in developing such a highly visible, plain-language document. It has been widely accepted as a clear interpretation of complex information.

The original — 6-page Personal Earnings and Benefit Estimate Statement — went to workers who were 60 years old. It was intended to give information about yearly earnings and eligibility for benefits and basic information about programs and benefits.

Rightly, the government was concerned about its clarity when its audience expanded drastically as a result of the legislation. Our preliminary review uncovered a number of flaws. And, ironically, the traditional “plain language” issues of word selection, active voice, and paragraph length had already been solved, but still the document had defects that impeded readability.

Social Security Article

We rolled up our sleeves and followed a systematic plan.

Working closely with SSA staff, we:

  • analyzed the original, its problems, successes, and constraints;
  • held intensive interviews of legal and programming staff, communication and publication personnel, customer service representatives, top managers.
  • developed 4 prototypes and tested them.
  • monitored results of SSA’s survey of 16,000 randomly selected people.
  • elicited comments from agencies and organizations.

To read more, see, “Plain language pays off for the Social Security Administration“ in Clarity.

See your own Social Security Statement at www.ssa.gov.


Winner of the Plain Language Award

The Social Security Statement won Vice President Gore’s Plain Language Award. As Gore noted,

”Millions of Americans depend on Social Security, and by making critical information simpler and more easy to understand, we are better serving the public.”

Wouldn’t you love to get calls like this?

Some reactions from readers:

  • ”Wonderful redesign! Easy to read and easy to understand — Easy to find the info — Kudos to whoever designed this new form!”
  • ”I received my statement in the mail and just wanted to let someone know that I thought it was very well done. It was clear, comprehensive, and informative … a sign of good government in action. You should be congratulated.” 
  • ”This is the first time that I ever got anything from the government that I read all the way through.”
President Gore's Plain Language Award

Clearly, the document has stood the test of time.

Years later, it effectively gives people the information they need to make sound choices about their retirement.