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GAO Synopsis

GAO Report on Social Security Beneficiaries and Vocational Rehabilitation: A Brief Synopsis

David T. Hutt, J.D., Ph.D.
National Disability Rights Network

Last month the General Accountability Office (“GAO”) issued a report looking at the outcomes of Social Security beneficiaries who participated in, and completed a vocational rehabilitation (“VR”) program between 2001 and 2003. This article provides a brief overview of the findings by the GAO, and the methods used to arrive at these findings. The GAO specifically looked at 1) whether Social Security beneficiaries earned any income form work, 2) the amount of earnings, and 3) whether beneficiaries left Social Security cash benefits within one year of completing a VR program. Most importantly for vocational rehabilitation advocates, the report discusses VR agency practices which appear to contribute to better outcomes for Social Security beneficiaries.

A Picture of SSA Beneficiaries and the VR Program 2001 - 2003

The GAO is the auditing, evaluating, and investigative arm of Congress, and was charged with determining what accounts for the wide variation across the states in the employment outcomes of Social Security beneficiaries who participate in the VR system. Utilizing data from the U.S. Department of Education from 2001 to 2003 on SSA beneficiaries and VR spending, data obtained by the GAO in surveys from 78 of the 80 VR agencies, and census data, the GAO produced a picture of the earnings of Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients one year after completing the VR program. The GAO followed the Department of Education definition of completion of a VR program, which does not necessarily mean the individual was employed following the provision of services. Though the picture provides some useful information about the VR program, the GAO is careful to point out that the results cannot be generalized to non-SSDI or SSI participants in the VR program.

The picture produced for the 2001 to 2003 period for beneficiaries one year after completing a VR program shows a wide variation across the VR agencies:

  • The average VR agency had 50% of beneficiaries exit with some form of earnings. One agency had no beneficiary achieve earnings, while a few agencies had up to 75% achieve some form of earnings.
  • The average annual wages for beneficiaries with earnings was $8,140, with a range of $1,500 to almost $17,000.
  • Across the VR agencies an average of 7% of beneficiaries earned enough to go off SSDI/SSI cash benefits, with a range across agencies of from 0% to 20%.

The GAO also notes a wide variation among the three types of VR agencies: general, blind, or combined. Beneficiaries who received VR services from general agencies were more likely to leave VR with earnings, but beneficiaries who worked with blind agencies had higher annual wages when they achieved earnings. For all types of agencies, around 7% left Social Security benefits within one year after completing the VR program.

Employment Conditions within a State Impact Earnings

Using statistical multivariate regression analysis, the GAO looked at why earnings outcomes for beneficiaries differed so much across the VR agencies. As was to be expected, the unemployment rate in a state played an important factor in whether the beneficiary achieved earnings after the VR program. For each 1 percent of unemployment within a state, the earnings of an average beneficiary one year after completing the VR program decreased by over 2 percent. Along with unemployment, the per capita income of the state impacted the earnings and the number of beneficiaries who left the Social Security cash benefits program. States with lower per capita income had fewer beneficiaries achieve earnings, had lowing earnings when employed, and had fewer beneficiaries leave the Social Security cash benefits program.

While the unemployment rate and level of per capita income within a state accounted for 33% of the differences among the agencies, GAO also considered other factors. Gender, the age of the population served by VR, and certain types of disabilities were found to have some impact on the earnings outcomes of beneficiaries. VR agencies serving a greater proportion of women had fewer beneficiaries achieve earnings, and VR agencies with a greater percentage of beneficiaries between 46 and 55 years old had less individuals leave the Social Security cash benefits program. In terms of disability type, VR agencies serving a greater percentage of individuals with mental illness or with visual impairments had fewer individuals go off cash benefits. The GAO study notes the higher earnings threshold for SSDI recipients who are blind, but does not indicate if this was taken into account in the analysis.

Impact of State Policies

Perhaps the most important aspect of the GAO report for VR advocates is how certain VR agency policies and practices impacted the achievement of earnings of beneficiaries. The GAO found the following:

  • More beneficiaries exited the VR program with employment in states with a higher proportion of Certified Rehabilitation Counselors (CRCs).
  • State VR agencies with close ties to the business community had higher earnings for beneficiaries and a higher rate leaving the Social Security cash benefits program.
  • Beneficiaries received higher earnings when the state had greater support and cooperation from other public programs such as state social services, mental health, and education departments.
  • State VR agencies which spent a greater proportion on training had beneficiaries who achieved higher earnings.

The results of the study, of course, do not mean that in every individual case a beneficiary who receives VR support in training, with assistance from a CRC in a VR agency with strong ties to the business community will achieve high earnings. The results of this study, however, suggest certain agency wide VR policies which might improve the earnings of some beneficiaries.

The GAO also considered the impact of Social Security benefits counselors located in-house within the VR agency on the earnings of beneficiaries. Contrary to what one would expect, VR agencies with benefits counselors had beneficiaries with lower earnings than those without such in-house counselors. The GAO notes, however, that such benefits counseling programs were in-flux during the period of the study and points to another study which found benefits counseling had a positive impact on the earnings of individuals with psychiatric disabilities. The impact of benefits counseling on beneficiaries achieving work will be an area for additional consideration and research over the next several years.

Finally, despite providing a good quantitative analysis of the VR program and Social Security beneficiaries, the study is limited to beneficiaries one year after the VR program was complete. Whether beneficiaries were able to maintain or increase their earnings years after completing the VR program remains a further question.

The full report is available at http://www.gao.gov/htext/d07521.html, or athttp://www.gao.gov/new.items/d07521.pdf.

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