For the first time, the Social Security Administration (SSA) published data last week on the number of its beneficiaries who had died in 2020. The data showed that there had been a 17 percent increase in deaths among Social Security recipients as compared to 2019.
These increases were found across all categories of beneficiaries, including retirees, spouses, and disabled Americans. It is highly likely that these higher numbers are a reflection of deaths associated with the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately affected older Americans.
The Social Security Administration’s data includes all individuals, not only recipients of Social Security, and indicates an increase of 500,000 deaths in 2020 than the previous year. Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s official tally, roughly 375,000 Americans died of the coronavirus in 2020, compared to more than 700,000 overall as of August 2020.
The death data collected by the Social Security Administration is useful because it allows researchers to study the effects of Covid-19 in relation to many different factors, including by looking at the victims by their past income, benefit amount, location, and race and ethnicity. By taking these factors into consideration, it is hoped that federal researchers could discover patterns—for instance, that a group of people of a certain ethnicity from a certain area were dying in disproportionate numbers—that could be used to prevent further deaths.
The quantity of raw data available makes it possible to examine very small groups. For instance, the SSA data concluded that disabled adult children, a tiny percentage of all Social Security beneficiaries, experienced the worst rise in cases in its number of deaths during the pandemic, seeing a 26 percent overall increase. While the exact cause of this remains uncertain, one possible cause is the presence of many pre-existing conditions in this group, and the fact that many of them are placed in long-term care facilities, which experienced severe outbreaks in many states.
Another use of the data is to determine which vulnerable groups could benefit the most from “booster” vaccine shots, which the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has officially approved for emergency use. The shots are being set aside for immunocompromised Americans, many of whom are already on the Social Security Administration’s disability rolls—and who can be prioritized in order of receiving the shots according to the agency’s available data.
Trevor Filseth is a current and foreign affairs writer for the National Interest.