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Policy: Labor

Social Security's futile attempt to help disabled people go back to work

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Politics,Labor,Social Security,Entitlements,PennAve,Joseph Lawler,Economy,Work Requirements

Why do Trader Joe’s employees wear Hawaiian shirts and address each other as “mate"?

Larry Brace, a 58-year-old disabled worker, knows the answer. When the question came up in an interview with the grocery chain's U Street location in Washington, Brace nailed it and landed his first job in years.

Brace never would have thought to have researched the company background on his own (the answer is that the Trader Joe’s founder modeled the stores' ambience on a Caribbean vacation he took). But he had help, through a program called "Ticket to Work" intended to help Social Security Disability Insurance recipients like him find employment.

Ticket to Work paid for Brace to get tutored by America Works, an employment services agency. In America Works’ D.C. office, Brace was taught interview skills, including the practice of looking up the history of places he was applying to work.

Congress created Ticket to Work in 1999 to address a growing problem, namely that the disability rolls were expanding rapidly and the disability program did little to encourage work among those able to hold a job. Several other experiments with similar goals followed, but Ticket to Work is the largest such effort.

The idea was to give disability recipients a “ticket,” or voucher, that employment services companies would vie for by helping them find work and leave the disability rolls.

Yet, 15 years later, the growth in the disability rolls has accelerated. Now 11 million former workers receive Social Security disability benefits — more people than there are in Sweden.



Only about 31,000 people left the disability rolls to return to work in 2012, according to Social Security Administration data. The rate of people exiting disability for work hasn’t improved, although the effects of the 2008 recession make it hard to assess the impact of Ticket to Work, says David Stapleton, a researcher at the think tank Mathematica who analyzed Ticket to Work for the SSA. Stapleton’s research, however, indicates that the program had no effect on people taking up work earlier in the decade. The SSA did not respond to a request for comment.

Ticket to Work has worked for Brace. He began receiving Social Security benefits in 2012 after a two-year effort to establish that his congestive heart failure was a real disability. A recovering alcoholic, he is still living in a treatment center run by Catholic Charities, but he hopes to get his own place after a few months making $1,500 a month working 27 hours a week stocking shelves, running the cash register and cleaning up.

It’s likely he wouldn’t have found the job without America Works. Employment counselors say that many people like Brace who have been out of work for years have lost the basics of the job hunt — where to look, how to dress for an interview, how to smile while answering questions, not to mention that they have been diagnosed with a disability.

The problem for the government is that Brace is an exception. He knows that by earning more than $1,070 a month, the line set by the government, his monthly disability check soon will be suspended, and then eventually he will be out of Social Security altogether. Yet he is consciously trading the security of a hard-won disability draw for a paycheck of roughly the same size at Trader Joe that’s not guaranteed.

“I think I can do better on the outside,” Brace says. “I try not to worry, worry wears you down,” he adds.

Few capable disability beneficiaries share that attitude. Fewer than 1 percent of eligible Social Security beneficiaries use their ticket, according to a Government Accountability Office review.

Of those who do use the ticket to get services, many are daunted by the tradeoff between guaranteed benefits and an uncertain future in the labor market.

“In most cases, when they weigh a disability check for the rest of their life, medical benefits and often food stamps, it doesn’t make sense” for capable people to choose to work, says Lee Bowes, the CEO of America Works. Disability recipients also qualify for health insurance through Medicare.

The fear of losing health insurance is even greater than the fear of losing monetary benefits, says Katie Pitts, who counsels Ticket to Work users with the employment services agency Full Circle in Washington.

And there are horror stories that dissuade people from attempting to navigate the opaque process of using Ticket to Work. Pitts recounts the story of one former beneficiary who was told by the SSA that she owed $86,000 for misreporting her earnings over the course of nine years.

After a six-month legal ordeal, the woman agreed to pay the administration $30,000: $100 a month out of her roughly $2,000 income. Hers was “not a typical case,” says Pitts, but for other people already wary of leaving disability, it’s a cautionary tale.

“Beneficiaries are extraordinarily confused about how the program incentives work,” Stapleton says. “Many beneficiaries are not highly educated, and the incentives are very complicated,” he says, adding that there are "cases where people stop working completely because they don’t understand the system and they want to keep their benefits."

As a result, people like Brace are the rare exception among Social Security disability recipients who are able to work. And that, in turn, is why the swollen disability rolls are a challenge the U.S. will have to take on.

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