Prisoners Receiving Social Security and Other Federal Retirement, Disability, and Education Benefits

HRD-82-43: Published: Jul 22, 1982. Publicly Released: Jul 22, 1982.

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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO estimated the number of incarcerated felons receiving social security and other cash benefits from various federal programs. Initial GAO estimates on the number of prisoner beneficiaries receiving benefits from Social Security Administration (SSA) and Veterans Administration (VA) programs resulted in Congress enacting legislation in 1980 to exclude certain benefits to prisoners.

GAO estimated that before the 1980 amendments: (1) about 1.4 percent of the incarcerated felons were receiving social security disability benefits of approximately $17 million a year; (2) about 1 percent were receiving VA disability compensation of approximately $8 million a year; and (3) about 1.3 percent were receiving VA education benefits of approximately $14 million a year. Prisoners were also receiving cash benefits from other similar federal programs not addressed by the amendments, including 0.4 percent who were receiving social security retirement or survivor benefits of approximately $4 million a year. Other prisoners were receiving cash benefits from the federal needs-based programs of Supplemental Security Income and veterans pensions. SSA and VA will not be able to identify prisoner beneficiaries completely until accurate social security numbers (SSN) are available for all prisoners. States varied widely in the completeness and accuracy of this information and could improve their documentation in coordination with the SSA validation process. GAO also estimated that about 4 percent of the prisoners were receiving postsecondary education funded through Pell Grants. The amounts varied but, because of tuition waivers, some grants were higher than the fees schools actually charged the prisoners.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: An undetermined amount of money will be saved when prisoners collecting benefits have their benefits terminated while in prison.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Health and Human Services should direct the Commissioner of Social Security to: (1) encourage state prison systems to give SSA periodic lists of prisoners, incarceration dates, and accurate SSN; (2) validate all prisoner SSN and share the names, validated SSN's, and incarceration dates with VA so that VA can better identify prisoner beneficiaries of its programs; and (3) share the corrected SSN with the prison systems to enhance the accuracy of their prisoner files.

    Agency Affected: Department of Health and Human Services

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: SSA has not released computer tapes to VA because of a new law, the Primary Protestation Act, and the issue has been with SSA and VA General Counsels. VA drew up an agreement and, in February 1990, sent it to SSA for concurrence. As of June 1990, SSA was still reviewing it. Given the 8 years that have elapsed so far, GAO sees no outcome in the forseeable future.

    Recommendation: The Administrator of Veterans Affairs should use the prisoner identification information supplied by SSA to better identify prisoner beneficiaries of VA programs.

    Agency Affected: Veterans Administration

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: Education found that legislation enacted in 1982, and extended thereafter, prevents it from modifying the rules.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Education should amend the Pell Grant Program regulations so that schools are required to calculate the students' cost of attendance, upon which Pell Grants are based, after any tuition waivers have been granted.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education


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