Social Security Disability:

Multiple Factors Affect Return to Work

T-HEHS-99-82: Published: Mar 11, 1999. Publicly Released: Mar 11, 1999.

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Cynthia Maher Fagnoni
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Pursuant to a congressional request, GAO discussed return-to-work issues facing the Disability Insurance (DI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs, focusing on: (1) structural and operational weaknesses in the current DI and SSI programs that impede return to work; (2) factors that working beneficiaries believe are helpful in becoming and staying employed; and (3) challenges that exist in improving program incentives to work.

GAO noted that: (1) program eligibility requirements and the application process encourage people to focus on their inabilities, not their abilities; (2) moreover, work incentives offered by the programs do not overcome the risk of returning to work for many beneficiaries, and the complexities of work incentives can make them difficult to understand and challenging to implement; (3) also, there is little encouragement to use rehabilitation services, which are relatively inaccessible to beneficiaries seeking them; (4) some DI beneficiaries who work despite these program weaknesses cited improved ability to function in the work place, resulting from successful health care, and encouragement from family, friends, health care providers, and coworkers as the most important factors helping them find and maintain work; (5) GAO's analysis of some of the proposed changes to work incentives--such as gradually reducing the DI cash benefit level as earnings increase--indicates that there will be difficult trade-offs in any attempt to change work incentives; and (6) moreover, determining the effectiveness of any of these proposed policies in increasing work effort and reducing caseloads would require that major gaps in existing research be filled.

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