Ida C. Merriam

Ida Merriam with computer printout

This biography of Ida Merriam was first published in the newsletter of the National Academy of Social Insurance, and is reprinted with their kind permission. From SOCIAL INSURANCE UPDATE, Volume 1, Issue 2, March 1996, pgs. 9-10. Copyright, National Academy of Social Insurance.

Ida C. Merriam began her career in Social Security research shortly after President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. Over nearly 4 decades she built the Social Security Administration's (SSA) research operation into "one of the very best in the Federal government--one that helped immensely in the wise development of Social Security policy," acknowledged Bob Ball. Mrs. Merriam served as assistant director and then director of research in the 1950s and as the Assistant Commissioner of the Office of Research and Statistics (ORS) in 1963 until she retired in 1972. Since then she has remained active in Social Security developments both here and abroad, and continues to counsel and encourage colleagues and friends on social welfare policy. She is a founding member of the National Academy of Social Insurance, whose mission for the future aptly describes her entire career--fostering research and public understanding of social insurance programs and principles, developing new leaders and contributing to informed debate on social insurance issues.

Many of today's scholars were drawn by her influence into the Social Security field. She built a cadre of research professionals within the Social Security Administration and fostered close ties with the scientific community in the Federal government and in colleges and universities. She convened scholars from outside government to advise on the research agenda and new national data bases. Through a research grant program and public-use data bases, her leadership stimulated a host of young doctoral students to focus their talent on Social Security. Recalls Gene Smolensky, "Ida was devoted to nurturing young talent. She appointed me to her Advisory Board a scant five years after my Ph.D. She brought Virginia Reno into SSA a year or so later straight from the Peace Corps. She imbued all us kids with a life-long commitment to doing good through social insurance." "Working for Ida Merriam was a rare opportunity to learn from a powerful mentor, insight-ful critic and caring friend," added Reno.

Mrs. Merriam brought a clear vision of the importance of research to sound policy development. Cogent analysis, clear writing and impeccable accuracy are the hallmark of her own work and set the standard for others. Research on public programs, in her view, belongs in the public domain and the role of government research is to put it there in clear and understandable form. Under her direction ORS publications grew beyond the monthly Social Security Bulletin, to include special reports and brief R&S Notes that were issued quickly to respond to policymakers' questions.

The Social Security Bulletin brought a broad view of the role of social insurance in the nation's social and economic fabric. Mrs. Merriam personally established the social welfare expenditure series that tracks national spending for such purposes as education, health care, social and vocational services and income security through social insurance and social assistance. In that series, social insurance is not only Social Security, but other public programs --unemployment insurance, workers' compensation, and public employees retirement systems--as well as private group efforts to protect individuals against the economic vicissitudes of life--such as short-term sickness and disability benefits, private group life and disability insurance and private pensions. Trends in each of these systems were brought together in the social welfare expenditure series. The health care component of the series set the framework for the national health expenditure series that is now used to project future national health spending.

A perusal of the ORS research reports she began in 1963 reveals the scope of her intellectual inquiry and professional impact: poor housing and insecurity for the nation's children; standards for setting benefit levels in old age; the financial experience of health insurers before Medicare; disability beneficiaries' experiences with rehabilitation; social insurance lessons from Europe; earnings patterns within families over the life cycle; the scope and adequacy of health insurance coverage in the United States; the experience of widows and children receiving Social Security; the allocation of work and leisure over the lifetime; simulations of retirement income for future retirees; a historical review of public attitudes toward Social Security. These are only some of the special reports she commissioned and directed between 1963 and 1972.

In the 1960s, under Mrs. Merriam's leadership, ORS catapulted into the forefront of social policy analysis. New concerns about the poor and civil rights for minorities, a building debate on health insurance for the elderly, extension of disability insurance to workers under age 50 and enactment of early retirement benefits for men all posed new research challenges.

Longstanding scholarly interest in defining and measuring "low-income" took a major step forward when ORS published what was to become the official poverty thresholds for comparing the economic status of families of different sizes. For the first time, statisticians could count the number of poor children, elderly and other adults.

"[Ida] was one of those public servants who viewed government service as a noble calling, a medium through which she could and did make a positive and lasting impact on the well being of the populace. "

Before the enactment of Medicare, ORS led in studies of health care financing and its 1962 Survey of the Aged documented the health status of the elderly, their use of care and methods of paying for it. The Medicare program that was enacted in 1965 was a hybrid of the social insurance program proposed by the Administration (hospital insurance) and a voluntary, premium-financed approach acceptable to the medical community (supplementary medical insurance). The research challenge was to blend the two disparate bill-paying structures to produce data to evaluate the impact on people. Mrs. Merriam's division of health insurance studies ably set up the data bases and launched the evaluation research to accomplish the task.

Even before Social Security disability insurance was extended to workers under age 50 in 1960, ORS conducted a special survey of DI beneficiaries age 50 or older and of younger workers who had established a "disability freeze" under 1954 legislation. It was a baseline for subsequent analyses and provided the first information on beneficiaries' experience with vocational rehabilitation. SSA's survey of disability and work in 1966 set the conceptual framework for measuring work disability and for comparing DI beneficiaries and other workers with varying degrees of work disability. The seminal survey in 1966, and updated surveys in 1972 and 1978 provided invaluable data for disability policy analysis.

After the early retirement option was extended to men in 1961, policy makers questioned the impact of early retirement on the economic well-being of workers who took reduced benefits. Mrs. Merriam and her advisors concluded that a longitudinal study of retirees was the best way to answer these questions. SSA's 1969 Retirement History Survey was ground breaking on a number of fronts. It spawned new analytic methods and new insights into the retirement process, and enabled many young scholars to write dissertations based on a unique new data base.

Above all else, Ida is remembered by SSA colleagues with affection and admiration. Dorothy Rice, who directed and conducted many of the health insurance studies recalls, "Throughout her career as a public servant, Mrs. Merriam earned a well-deserved reputation as an administrator with scientific objectivity, outstanding social policy expertise, and unquestioned integrity. She was one of those public servants who viewed government service as a noble calling, a medium through which she could and did make a positive and lasting impact on the social well-being of the populace. I am most fortunate to have worked for her and I proudly regard her as my teacher, mentor and friend." John Carroll, who served as Mrs. Merriam's deputy, sums it up, "Besides being a brilliant leader, she was for many of us a wise, strong and caring friend."