Helping the disabled to find work is next step to growing employment rate
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President Trump consistently calls for policies and programs that jumpstart economic growth and give more Americans the opportunity to work. The March jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics is encouraging, showing an increase of 235,000 (nonfarm) jobs in the month of February, with an unemployment rate at 4.7 percent. Still, millions of Americans who want to work cannot find it.

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At the same time, the president and the congressional leadership are seeking to enact a federal budget that would make a significant dent in the federal deficit and debt without draconian cuts in Social Security and Medicare. One way to meet both objectives is to reform and expand a little-known program run by the Social Security Administration (SSA) – the Ticket to Work program. Ticket to Work gives disabled Americans an opportunity to work and reduces the strain on our federal budget from entitlement programs. The program enhances the dignity and self-worth of disabled men and women who want to achieve self-sufficiency through productive work. We believe, with a little more investment from the public and private sectors, this program could expand to help a lot more people gain employment and grow the economy.

 

Between 1970 and 2015, American disability rolls grew from 1.8 million to 10.2 million. In 2004, in part to help counter this trend, the federal government launched Ticket to Work, providing SSDI beneficiaries with a “ticket” or voucher to obtain free vocational rehabilitation and employment services from public, private, and nonprofit agencies or companies. In a report we co-authored with Steven Cohen for the Manhattan Institute, we examined the program, and found that it appears to help people exit the disability system and return to work and thereby also relive pressure on the SSDI trust fund. Currently the program is small but it could have a much larger impact if the disability insurance system is reformed. Specifically, we recommend the following steps:

Employer engagement: Employers currently have an incentive to encourage an employee to apply for SSDI rather than making accommodations for that worker. Instituting employer-paid disability insurance would increase firms’ incentives to keep workers employed;

Early workforce intervention: By screening disability applicants early, support could be targeted to those who appear likely to be eligible for disability but also have the potential for significant work activity. These applicants could be offered services, including work and health interventions or even a wage subsidy, in exchange for not enrolling in SSDI;

More effective administration: The Social Security Administration has a backlog of about 900,000 continuing disability reviews. For each additional $1 spent to expedite these reviews, the SSA estimates that $9 would be saved over next 10 years; and,

Matching benefits to degree of disability: Instead of SSDI’s current one-size-fits-all approach, restructure the program to vary benefits based on degree of disability. Reforming how benefits are calculated could help reduce SSDI’s expected $256 billion shortfall over the next decade.

While none of the reforms we analyzed directly address Ticket to Work, they could amplify the program’s performance. Congress ought to prioritize SSDI reforms that are oriented towards getting more people to work, those that lend themselves to expansions where employment service providers already operating under Ticket to Work could accommodate an increase in participants. The reforms would enhance the overall efficiency of the SSDI system and support the impact of the Ticket to Work program, getting Americans back to self-sufficient employment.

And in doing our report we found good evidence that Ticket to Work can help disabled Americans find a good job and hold on to it. From 2011 to 2015, America Works—one of hundreds of employment networks that participate in Ticket to Work—enabled 75 percent of those hired as part of the company’s New York Ticket to Work contract, to reach at least 12 months of employment.

Since the 1980’s, America Works’ founders Peter Cove and Lee Bowes have found jobs for hard-to-place individuals and helped them keep working, whether the transition was from welfare, returning veterans, or those with disabilities. We agree with the president that enabling those who are able and anxious to work is a fundamental test for being a fair and just society. By reforming and expanding Ticket to Work we can do just that and help reducing the federal deficit at the same time.

We encourage the administration and congressional leaders to consider these modest reforms, which could make meaningful and self-sustaining work a reality and give private employers an incentive to partner with the federal government in this most important effort. Instead of cutting benefits for those who need them, let’s actually save money by giving those who can work the opportunity to do so.

Dr. William Eimicke and Alison Miller of Columbia University are co-authors, with Dr. Steven Cohen, of the recent Manhattan Institute report, “The Ticket to Work Program: Helping the Disabled to Achieve Self-Sufficiency.”


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