Panel Paper: Examining the Interaction Between Welfare and Disability: Lessons From An In-Depth Data Analysis

Thursday, November 7, 2013 : 11:50 AM
Plaza I (Ritz Carlton)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Melanie A. Skemer and Brian A. Bayes, MDRC
Welfare agencies and the federal disability system have common goals of supporting people with disabilities while encouraging self-sufficiency and employment to the extent possible. However, key differences between the two systems, including differing overall missions, programmatic and financial challenges, definitions of disability, and rules and incentives related to work, make it challenging for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs to work together. In an effort to better understand the extent and nature of the intersection between the TANF and SSI programs and, in turn, to better assist TANF recipients with disabilities, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), in collaboration with the Social Security Administration (SSA), contracted with MDRC to conduct the TANF/SSI Disability Transition Project (TSDTP).

One of the major questions underpinning the development of TSDTP was the degree to which welfare reform may have led to an increase in SSI applications, an issue of great concern to policymakers. Changes to the welfare system, particularly the institution of a work requirement and a 60-month lifetime limit on benefit receipt, loosely coincided with a near-doubling of SSI applications between 2000 and 2009. It was feared that pressures created by these new welfare rules may have led TANF agencies to encourage recipients with some level of impairment, but who were not truly unable to work, to apply to SSI. From the perspective of SSA, increasing referrals of TANF recipients to the SSI program place a significant strain on resources by increasing the number of applications they must process, which is problematic if such applications are without merit. Further, if TANF-connected applicants are determined to be ineligible for SSI, they will have undergone a fairly complex and lengthy application process and used up months (or years) of their TANF time limit while not pursuing employment, creating a potentially harmful gap in their work histories and precluding them from moving toward self-sufficiency.

This paper presents findings from the TSDTP’s in-depth analysis of never-before linked data from eleven years of nationwide SSI applications (1999 to 2009) and five years of TANF administrative records (FY 2005 to 2009). Merging these two data sources for the first time produced a rich longitudinal data set uniquely equipped to assess whether theories linking the increase in SSI applications to welfare reform were indeed accurate. Findings show that: a) new SSI applicants rarely receive TANF/SSP in the months before they apply; b) few TANF recipients who apply for SSI are at risk of losing their TANF benefits; and c) differences in award rates between TANF-connected SSI applicants and a general pool of SSI applicants are small when age differences are taken into account. In sum, it does not appear that welfare reform played a significant role in the rise in SSI applications. Future research should focus on tackling the still open and very difficult question of how best to provide services to address the special employment and support needs of low-income parents with impairments.