Supplemental Security Income:

SSA Could Strengthen Its Efforts to Encourage Employment for Transition-Age Youth

GAO-17-485: Published: May 17, 2017. Publicly Released: May 17, 2017.

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What GAO Found

The Social Security Administration's (SSA) primary approach for encouraging employment for transition-age youth (ages 14 to 17) with disabilities who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is work incentives that allow them to keep at least some of their SSI benefits and Medicaid coverage while they work. But few transition-age youth benefit from these incentives. SSI is a means-tested program that provides cash benefits to eligible low-income aged, blind, and disabled individuals. SSA administers several work incentives that allow SSI recipients to exclude some income and expenses when calculating SSI benefits. The work incentive targeted specifically to younger SSI recipients is the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE), which allows income to be excluded from benefits calculations if a recipient is a student under age 22. However, less than 1.5 percent of all transition-age youth—and generally less than half of those with earnings—benefited from SEIE in 2012 through 2015. SSA does not analyze these data, and thus cannot determine why the majority of youth with earnings are not benefiting from SEIE, when they may be eligible. SSA data also show that almost no youth benefited from other incentives that allow them to exclude earnings used for specific purposes, such as the Impairment-Related Work Expenses incentive. The effectiveness of SSA-administered work incentives may be further limited because, according to SSA and other officials, youth and their families are often unaware of or do not understand them, and may fear that work will negatively affect their benefits or eligibility. SSA policy requires staff to provide accurate and meaningful information about relevant SSI policies to claimants and recipients. However, GAO found that SSA does not have sufficient procedures in place to ensure that information on work incentives and how work affects benefits and eligibility is consistently communicated to youth and their families. As a result, SSA may miss opportunities to promote work incentives and other supports, allay fears, and potentially reduce dependence of transition-age youth on SSI benefits.

SSA does not have a systematic way to connect transition-age youth on SSI to state Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) agencies that provide training and employment services under the VR State Grants program administered by the Department of Education (Education). Although youth receiving SSI are generally presumed to be eligible for VR services, GAO found that less than 1 percent had an open VR service record in 2015 in four of the five states from which GAO collected VR data. Legislation in 1999 created the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency program, which expanded the number and types of employment service providers for individuals with disabilities. However, SSA limited eligibility to recipients age 18 and older. While transition-age youth receiving special education services can be connected to VR agencies through their schools, the extent to which this happens—and whether they are on SSI—is unknown because data to make such determinations are not systematically collected by SSA or schools. Federal standards for internal control call for agencies to use quality information to achieve their objectives. Without relevant data or additional options for connecting youth to VR services, SSA cannot ensure that transition-age youth on SSI are being connected to these services, which can help to prepare them for adulthood and the workforce.

Why GAO Did This Study

The number of individuals with disabilities under age 18 receiving SSI benefits increased by about 44 percent from 2000 through 2016. Youth ages 14 to 17 with disabilities face many challenges achieving self-sufficiency as they transition to adulthood. GAO was asked to examine SSA's efforts to encourage employment for these transition-age youth.

This report examines 1) SSA efforts to encourage employment for transition-age youth on SSI as they move toward adulthood and their effectiveness; and 2) the extent to which SSA helps ensure these youth receive vocational rehabilitation services. GAO analyzed SSA data on work incentives for calendar years 2012-2015, the most recent available, and data from five state VR agencies for calendar year 2015; reviewed relevant laws, policies, and research; and interviewed SSA staff and state VR officials in several states chosen for their SSI youth populations and VR outcomes.

What GAO Recommends

GAO recommends SSA 1) analyze why youth on SSI with earnings did not benefit from SEIE, 2) improve communication about work incentives and rules, 3) work with Education to determine how many youth on SSI are not connected to VR services, and 4) explore options to further connect them. SSA agreed in whole or in part with three recommendations. SSA disagreed that its communication on work incentives and rules needs to be improved, stating field staff provides information to youth, and it has created new written material. GAO maintains SSA's communication could be improved as presented in this report.

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Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA agreed with this recommendation. The agency stated that it would also explore various options for increasing connections to Vocational Rehabilitation (VR), stating that in addition to assessing options for referring youth to VR and/or changing the Ticket to Work program, the agency will continue to research other options for supporting transitioning youth.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should analyze the SEIE data to determine why a large proportion of transition-age youth on SSI with reported earnings did not benefit from the SEIE and, if warranted, take actions to ensure that those eligible for the incentive benefit from it.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  2. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA disagreed with this recommendation, noting that it already analyzed, and continuously monitors and solicits feedback on, options to improve communications. SSA also said it requires staff to meet with SSI recipients regularly and instructs staff to discuss relevant work incentives, and that there is no indication that staff are not providing youth with appropriate work incentive information. However, SSA did not explain how it knows or ensures that staff are providing this information and SSA policies do not instruct staff to consistently convey information to youth and families on how work may or may not affect age 18 redetermination. While SSA's new brochure provides information on age-18 redeterminations, work incentives and other resources, we believe it could also contain additional relevant information, for example, on Medicaid eligibility. We also noted that written information may not be sufficient for conveying complex information. In addition, while we recognize the important role that WIPA projects play in providing work incentives counseling to SSI youth, WIPA projects have limited capacity for serving youth along with other SSI recipients and disability insurance beneficiaries. Therefore, we continue to believe that there are opportunities for SSA to improve its communication with transition-age youth and their families, including through in-person or telephone interactions.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should analyze options to improve communication about SSA-administered work incentives and the implications of work on SSI benefits, with a goal of increasing understanding of SSI program rules and work incentives among transition-age youth and their families. This should include, but not necessarily be limited to, updating SSAs procedures for staff meeting with SSI applicants, recipients, and their families to regularly and consistently discuss - when applicable--how work incentives can prevent reductions in benefit levels and how work history is considered during eligibility redeterminations.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA partially agreed with this recommendation. SSA noted its ongoing collaboration with Education and other agencies through the Promoting Readiness of Minors in SSI (PROMISE) project, stating the initiative is testing the provision of VR services to youth receiving SSI and will provide some evidence related to the role of schools and VR services for this population. SSA also stated it will continue to pursue research in this area. While we recognize the value of this initiative, a final PROMISE evaluation is not expected until winter 2022. In addition, the PROMISE initiative was not designed to determine the extent to which youth on SSI are receiving transition services through schools or are otherwise connected to VR services. SSA also noted that it works with Education and other agencies through the Federal Partners in Transition (FPT) Workgroup to improve the provision of transition services to students with disabilities, and that the FPT has issued a blueprint of agencies' efforts. While the FPT can be a promising vehicle to help connect youth on SSI to key transition services, the FPT had not set timelines or milestones to achieve its broad goal to support positive outcomes for youth with disabilities, nor does it have a list or specific activities and tasks it will undertake. Therefore, we continue to believe additional collaboration by SSA with Education would be beneficial. SSA also noted several concerns related to complying with this recommendation, such as legal (privacy) concerns with data sharing, the capacity of state VR agencies to serve more individuals, and the receptivity of youth on SSI to receiving services. While we acknowledge these challenges, we believe that SSA can take steps to explore actions it could take after considering such legal issues. While low state VR capacity or individual motivation can obstruct receipt of VR services, they should not prevent SSA from working with Education to determine the extent to which SSI youth are sufficiently informed of VR resources that are potentially available to them.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should work with the Secretary of Education to determine the extent to which youth on SSI are not receiving transition services through schools that can connect them to VR agencies and services.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration

  4. Status: Open

    Comments: SSA agreed with this recommendation. The agency stated that, in addition to assessing legal and statutory options for referring youth to VR and/or changing the Ticket to Work program, it would also continue its research supporting youth.

    Recommendation: The Acting Commissioner of the Social Security Administration should explore various options for increasing connections to VR agencies and services, including their potential costs and benefits. One option, among others, could be to expand the Ticket to Work program to include youth.

    Agency Affected: Social Security Administration


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