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AARP 2017 Social Security Policy Innovation Challenge

Social Security is the foundation of financial security for Americans when workers retire, face severe disability, or suffer the death of a working parent or spouse. Yet benefits are modest, and the program was created in the context of much different demographic and economic trends than those that prevail today. As our nation looks to ensure Social Security’s future, we must keep what works, make improvements where needed, and take steps toward long-term financial stability.

In 2017, AARP launched its first Social Security Innovation Challenge to identify policy solutions that would strengthen economic security for American workers and retirees by achieving Social Security solvency and maintaining benefit adequacy for future generations.

Through the Challenge, scholars and researchers were invited to submit ideas from a variety of disciplines. Applicants were encouraged to consider macro trends (e.g., in the workforce, income, wealth, savings rates, life expectancy, fertility rates, marital status) and to take an innovative look at policy options that address these trends.

Policy Innovation Challenge Awardees

An expert panel conducted a blind review and identified the seven highest-ranking concepts. With support from AARP, the authors of those concepts further developed their policy innovations and worked with the Urban Institute to assess the financial and distributional impacts. An Executive Summary and Full Report for each of the seven innovations are below.

Two proposals co-authored by AARP staff ranked highly in the blind review and in fact were among the seven concepts selected to be further developed and modeled by the Urban Institute.   

AARP is committed to investing in the surfacing and development of policy innovations. AARP does not necessarily support any of the policy proposals identified as part of this innovation challenge.

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Special Minimum Benefits

Social Security features a special minimum benefit for lifetime low-income earners, but it has not kept up with inflation. Two innovations below are aimed at enhancing minimum benefits to ensure those who have had a low income throughout their careers are not stuck in poverty in retirement.

This innovation creates a new Minimum Benefit Plan (MBP) for low-earning retirees that would more effectively target appropriate recipients, in the process factoring in other public assistance programs.

Authored by Pamela Herd, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Melissa Favreault, Urban Institute; Tim Smeeding, University of Wisconsin–Madison; and Madonna Harrington Meyer, Maxwell School of Syracuse University

Executive Summary

Full Report

This innovation revises Social Security's minimum benefit to assure that eligible retired workers avoid impoverishment. It adopts an augmented poverty threshold linked to employment history.

Authored by Kimberly J. Johnson, Indiana University School of Social Work; Elizabeth Johns, University of Massachusetts Boston Gerontology Institute & University of Maine Center on Aging

Executive Summary

Full Report

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Most Americans are living longer than they did at the time of the inception of the Social Security program. Three innovations below are aimed at encouraging Americans to work later in life, thereby augmenting their benefits for retirement.

This innovation would allow workers to make “catch-up” contributions via increased 

Authored by Teresa Ghilarducci, Anthony Webb, and Michael Papadopoulos, The New School for Social Research; Wei Sun, Renmin University

Executive Summary

Full Report

This innovation would provide beneficiaries with a lump-sum payment if they delay claiming retirement benefits.

Authored by Olivia S. Mitchell, The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania; Raimond Maurer, Goethe University of Frankfurt

Executive Summary

Full Report

This innovation would establish mandatory add-on accounts known as Supplemental Transition Accounts for Retirement (START) that each worker would be required to exhaust before receiving Social Security retirement benefits.

Authored by Gary Koenig, AARP Public Policy Institute; Jason Fichtner, Mercatus Center at George Mason University; and William G. Gale, Brookings Institute

Executive Summary

Full Report    

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New Credits

Throughout its history, Social Security has added benefits to insure against new risks. Two innovations below are aimed at fighting against new risks in today’s economy.


This innovation would allow workers to receive credits for three activities and statuses that currently do not allow for the accrual of Social Security benefits: unpaid family caregiving, unemployment, and job training.

Authored by Christian Weller, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts Boston: Darrick Hamilton, Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, and Department of Economics, New School for Social Research, The New School, New York

Executive Summary

Full Report

This innovation would allow eligible workers to tap Social Security benefits early to use for up to two years of education or skills training.

Authored by Debra Whitman, EVP/Chief Public Policy Officer, AARP; Marc Freedman, Founder & CEO,; and Jim Emerman, Executive Vice President,

Executive Summary

Full Report


As part of the Innovation Challenge, the National Academy of Social Insurance and AARP hosted a day-long exploration of bold new ideas in Social Security policy. Please visit the 2017 Social Security Policy Innovations Challenge Event page for a full list of speakers and discussion topics.