On the day he first took office on Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden signed an executive order called Advancing Racial Equity and Support for Underserved Communities Through the Federal Government.

This order called for a whole of government approach to "advancing equity for all, including people of color and others who have been historically underserved, marginalized, and adversely affected by persistent poverty and inequality."

Specifically, it directed the various federal agencies to draft Equity Action Plans that outline strategies to expand federal investment and support in underserved communities that have been locked out or held back, including communities of color, tribal communities, rural communities, LGBTQI+ communities, people with disabilities, women and girls, and communities impacted by poverty. On April 14 of this year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) released its Equity Action Plan.

A nurse helping up a person with a disability.

Image source: Getty Images.

Improved data collection on race and ethnicity

"Social Security's programs touch the lives of nearly every American, providing income security for the diverse populations we serve, including people facing barriers, people with disabilities, people who are widowed, retirees, and their families," Kilolo Kijakazi, acting commissioner of the SSA, said. "Systemic barriers may prevent people who need our programs the most from accessing them. Our Equity Action Plan will help to reduce these barriers and ensure people have access to our services."

A key pillar in the SSA's Equity Action Plan is to increase the collection of race and ethnicity data to help SSA determine if different groups are being equitably served. The 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 correct any inequities.

The executive summary reads: 

Since 1987, there has been a huge decline in race and ethnicity data in our records. This makes it more difficult 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 the collection of the race and ethnicity of the people participating in our programs.

The reason for the decline is because prior to 1987, the SSA obtained race and ethnicity data when people applied for a Social Security Number (SSN) card on a voluntary basis. In 1987, SSA implemented a new practice called enumeration at birth (EAB), which allows parents to request a SSN at the hospital after their child is born. However, hospitals do not collect race and ethnicity data, nor is it sought later in life through automated enumeration processes. As a result, SSA has race and ethnicity data for only 59% of living SSN holders.

As part of its plan, SSA will seek various ways to collect better data. One option is to collect race and ethnicity data when people seek a new or replacement SSN card online. Another is to expand data exchange efforts within its existing legal framework to obtain and share race and ethnicity data for research and statistical purposes.

Other improvements

The SSA's Equity Action Plan also calls for improving service delivery to various groups, including people with disabilities, by providing more online and mobile alternatives to in-person visits and reducing other administrative burdens. Biden's proposed FY 2023 budget allocates $14.8 billion for the SSA, a jump of $1.8 billion over the current year. Increased funding would be used to improve service delivery at field offices, teleservice centers, online, and for state disability determination services.

Further, SSA seeks to lower barriers for people who identify as gender diverse or transgender in the Social Security number card application process. Among its policy considerations, SSA is exploring the idea of self-attestation without evidence in the SSN card application process.

In addition, 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, promote 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 its entirety at SSA.gov. The hope for Biden and Acting Commissioner Kijakazi is to lower any barriers and ensure equitable access to the diverse population SSA serves.