October marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month, dedicated to helping people with disabilities get jobs. Ticket to Work (TTW), a little-known program, exemplifies the success of this endeavor.
Consider Shirley’s story. One Saturday in 2008, while driving her 10-year-old son to the mall, Shirley was overcome by sleepiness and muscle weakness. Her body went into auto pilot as she lost awareness of what she was doing. “I was on the Pennsylvania Turnpike,” she recalls, “and I had fallen asleep at the wheel without realizing it. My car veered into the adjacent lane.” When a loud, urgent car horn snapped her back into consciousness, Shirley corrected her steering just in time to avoid a collision at 65 miles per hour. The episode lasted just seconds—Shirley felt fine, and despite its strangeness, she put it out of her mind—but episodes recurred. Facing the prospect of permanent unemployment and disability benefits, she contacted TTW, a program that helped her to land a permanent position in procurement and logistics for Maryland’s state government.
Disability rolls have skyrocketed over the past two decades. Numerous factors contribute to this trend, including the time limits placed on welfare benefits, an important reform that had an unintended consequence: it led caseworkers to encourage people to apply for disability support. An industry emerged—mostly comprised of lawyers—to advocate for admission to the rolls. And permissive guidelines encouraged applications for disability benefits, with their virtually lifelong guarantee of monthly money rolling in.
Overly generous entrance criteria were worsened by policies that discouraged employment once someone started getting disability payments. The usual requirement for a monthly stipend from Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability is that the recipient is incapable of working; if one were to start working again, that would demonstrate capability, which would result in automatic disqualification. Why trade a guaranteed stipend for the risks of work? Disability support became the nation’s most significant poverty program.
A major change occurred when Congress created TTW in 1999 to allow people to work without risking their benefits. The new rules permitted recipients to maintain employment while weaning themselves off payments. Equally important, if the recipient lost a job, reentry to the rolls was allowed—in other words, proof of work would no longer disqualify one from getting back into the system. Once the detriment to getting a job was removed, the Social Security Administration began encouraging work instead of preventing it.
TTW got off to a slow start, but it has picked up momentum. From 2013 to 2019, the number of disability beneficiaries in the workforce increased 260 percent, with more than 31,000 individuals going back to work; in 2016 alone, these workers saved the disability program $3.4 billion. Problems remain, such as overpayments to beneficiaries who report to work but continue to receive government checks. A lack of program outreach and complicated enrollment procedures have hindered more rapid growth. But SSA has worked to resolve these problems.
The program offers some important lessons—above all, that most people want to work. To receive government support, there must be incentives to gain employment and a path to transitioning off benefits. After welfare reform was instituted in the mid-1990s, requiring work for able-bodied welfare recipients, the rolls dropped 60 percent within 10 years of implementation. In the end, every individual should feel empowered to work, if it is possible for them to do so. TTW is entirely voluntary; time and again, people choose to go to work because, like Shirley, they want to feel productive, and they take pride in what they can contribute. A government program that reduces poverty and enables people to work? That’s something to celebrate.