It’s Time to Move Forward on Solutions to Support Youth with Disabilities

Nov 29, 2018

Policymakers face a seemingly intractable problem: how can they promote better outcomes for youth ages 14 to 24 who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI)? Despite an array of programs and tests for this population—which numbered about 900,000 youth in 2017—the needle hasn’t budged on their outcomes as they make the transition from youth to adulthood. Employment rates, earnings, and educational achievement are all lower for these youth than for their peers with disabilities who do not receive SSI. Many youth receiving SSI end up relying on federal disability programs for life.

A wide range of programs are available to youth receiving SSI. Local education agencies provide special education services, which can include job-focused transition programs. The Social Security Administration offers supports to encourage employment—for example, by excluding some earned income from the calculation of SSI cash payments. State vocational rehabilitation agencies and local workforce centers make employment supports and training available to eligible youth. However, youth receiving SSI may not take advantage of these programs because of a lack of awareness, low expectations on the part of family members and service providers, and insufficient services or transportation in their local communities.

These young people face sizeable hurdles in their transitions from school to work. Two of the biggest hurdles are related to their SSI eligibility: to enroll in SSI, youth must have severe and pervasive health conditions that impair their functioning, and they must have limited financial resources. Another hurdle is that some youth live in households that have experienced many generations of poverty and disability. But despite often being defined simply by their disability, these young people are as diverse as their peers without disabilities. Simply put, there is no “one size fits all” solution for promoting better transition outcomes for them.

Unfortunately, we know very little about the right solutions. Few interventions have been tested rigorously or have been tried specifically with these youth. The sources that policymakers might consult—Guideposts for Success, for example, or the lists of effective practices from the National Technical Assistance Center on Transition—don’t have information specific to youth receiving SSI. The programs that have been rigorously tested for these youth—the Youth Transition Demonstration and Promoting Readiness of Minors in SSI—involve a comprehensive set of services that might be difficult, costly, or otherwise impractical to pursue. And new initiatives, such as the pre-employment transition services that state vocational rehabilitation agencies are rolling out, could miss many youth who receive SSI, given their underuse of the supports mentioned above.

Over the past year, researchers at Mathematica and the University of Maryland have considered possible answers to the question of how policymakers can best promote employment for youth receiving SSI. With guidance from the Office of Disability Employment Policy at the U.S. Department of Labor, we examined supports for these youth and assembled a team of over 70 experts to gather information outside of published sources.

The short answer to our question is that no single intervention—or subset of interventions—is best because there is not enough strong evidence to make such a claim. If policymakers want better results for youth receiving SSI, they need better solutions. And identifying those solutions will require comprehensive and systematic efforts involving many stakeholders. Here are five strategies that policymakers could pursue to make a difference:

  1. Use an explicit framework to select interventions. We developed a three-step framework and a corresponding worksheet that identify the choices to be made when selecting an intervention. Policymakers can use these tools to navigate the selection process and review the characteristics of an intervention in a systematic way. The worksheet poses questions such as, What goals and outcomes do policymakers want to achieve? How would an intervention fit into the existing landscape of public programs? What do we know about an intervention’s efficacy? By being explicit about these choices, policymakers can be more intentional in designing their interventions.
  2. Develop a comprehensive, multiagency agenda for testing interventions. It may be easier to test interventions in a systematic and coordinated way if the agencies involved can agree on an agenda that specifies what will be done, by whom, and when. The Federal Partners in Transition workgroup has developed an interagency strategy for youth with disabilities broadly; a similar effort could focus on the hard-to-serve population of youth receiving SSI. To supplement this effort, policymakers could map agencies’ current goals, resources, and service provision to help plan their efforts for this population.
  3. Ensure that tests of future interventions provide rigorous evidence on what works. As noted, a large portion of research either is not conclusive or does not identify results for youth who receive SSI. Well-designed tests would give policymakers, practitioners, and youth and their families better information to make decisions about transition services.
  4. Adapt Guideposts in ways that are more inclusive of youth who receive SSI. The current version of Guideposts does not emphasize the supports that some youth receiving SSI might need, such as benefits counseling, financial education, and health services. But policymakers could extend the advice from Guideposts in these areas so that it is more relevant for these youth.
  5. Include others in the decision making. Individual agencies could involve other federal, state, and local policymakers and stakeholders in their decision making. This input could provide innovative ideas and resources for developing, deploying, and testing interventions for youth receiving SSI.

These strategies can help policymakers find better ways to surmount the hurdles that youth who receive SSI may face as they grow into adults. With the right supports delivered at the right time, these young people can gain more from their schooling, obtain better careers, become both more independent and more involved in their communities, and rely less on public programs.

This blog was prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), Office of Disability Employment Policy by Mathematica Policy Research, under contract number DOLQ129633249. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to DOL, nor does mention of trade names, commercial products, or organizations imply endorsement of same by the U.S. Government.

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The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not represent those of Mathematica Policy Research.

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