On the day he first took office on January 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order titled Promoting Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities through the Federal Government.
This order called for a whole-of-government approach to “advance equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized and affected by persistent poverty and inequality.”
Specifically, he directed various federal agencies to draft equity action plans that outline strategies to increase federal investment and support in underserved communities that have been locked down or held back, including communities of color, tribal communities, rural communities, LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities, women and girls, and communities affected by poverty. On April 14 of this year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) released its Equity Action Plan.
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Improved race and ethnicity data collection
“Social Security programs touch the lives of nearly every American, providing income security for the diverse populations we serve, including those facing barriers, people with disabilities, widows, retirees, and their families,” said Kilolo Kijakazi , Acting Commissioner of the SSA. . “Systemic barriers can prevent the people who need our programs most from accessing them. Our equity action plan will help reduce these barriers and ensure people have access to our services.”
A key pillar of the SSA Equity Action Plan is to increase the collection of race and ethnicity data to help the SSA determine whether different groups are being served equitably. Improved data collection will also help SSA officials examine whether there are differences in benefit levels based on race and ethnicity and identify solutions to address inequities.
The executive summary reads as follows:
Since 1987, there has been a huge decline in race and ethnicity data in our records. This makes it harder for us to monitor the fair treatment of people of color in our programs. To determine whether administrative barriers disproportionately affect some groups more than others, we will increase collection of the race and ethnicity of people in our programs.
The reason for the decline is that before 1987, the SSA obtained race and ethnicity data when people applied for a Social Security Number (SSN) card on a voluntary basis. In 1987, the SSA implemented a new practice called counting at birth (EAB), which allows parents to request an SSN from the hospital after the birth of their child. However, hospitals do not collect race and ethnicity data, nor track it later in life through automated enumeration processes. As a result, the SSA has race and ethnicity data for only 59% of living SSN holders.
As part of its plan, the SSA will look at different ways to collect better data. One option is to collect race and ethnicity data when people search for a new SSN card or replacement SSN card online. Another is to expand data-sharing efforts within its existing legal framework to obtain and share race and ethnicity data for research and statistical purposes.
The SSA Equity Action Plan also calls for improving service delivery to diverse groups, including people with disabilities, by providing more online and mobile alternatives to in-person visits and reducing other administrative charges. Biden’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2023 allocates $14.8 billion to SSA, a jump of $1.8 billion from the current year. Increased funding would be used to improve service delivery at field offices, teleservice centers, online and for state disability determination services.
In addition, SSA seeks to reduce barriers for people who identify as gender diverse or transgender in the Social Security numbered card application process. Among its policy considerations, the SSA is exploring the idea of self-attestation without evidence in the SSN card application process.
In addition, the SSA plans to increase funding and grants, which are disproportionately low, to historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions. The funding will support research initiatives, foster procurement opportunities, and expand SSA’s engagement with these organizations in other ways.
These are just some of the highlights of SSA’s Equity Action Plan, which can be read in full at SSA.gov. The hope of Biden and Acting Commissioner Kijakazi must reduce barriers and ensure equitable access to the diverse population the SSA serves.
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