Evaluation of the Ticket to Work Program

Prepared for
Social Security Administration
blind person walking with a cane

The Ticket to Work (TTW) program is a major initiative to promote disability beneficiaries’ employment and reduce their dependence on benefits. TTW increases beneficiaries' choice of employment-support providers by expanding the types of organizations that the Social Security Administration (SSA) will pay to assist beneficiaries' work efforts.

Before TTW, SSA funded only state vocational rehabilitation agencies to help beneficiaries. Now, it pays a wide array of public and private providers called employment networks, in addition to state vocational rehabilitation agencies. TTW also introduced a new financing system for the employment networks; this system provides performance incentives for employment networks because they receive full payment only when a beneficiary they served earns his or her way off the rolls and stays off for 36 months. The old system for state vocational rehabilitation agencies, which still exists, did not require beneficiaries to actually leave the rolls, only that they accrue earnings for nine months at a level consistent with SSA's definition of substantial gainful activity. Service delivery in TTW is constrained, however, by providers' desire to limit expenditures to a level that fits within the payments they expect to receive. Service delivery is also constrained by providers' perceptions of whether the services they provide are likely to result in a beneficiary leaving the rolls. In fact, providers can refuse to serve beneficiaries they view as unlikely to leave the rolls for work.

In July 2008, SSA implemented new regulations in the TTW program designed to increase participation by employment networks and beneficiaries. The new regulations increased payments to employment networks, reduced the time period beneficiaries must remain off the rolls for employment networks to receive full payment, and allowed beneficiaries to receive services from employment networks even after receiving services from a state vocational rehabilitation agency that were paid for by SSA. Mathematica’s 10-year evaluation assessed program implementation and effects on employment, earnings, and benefit receipt. Special attention was paid to how well the program serves beneficiaries who might have difficulty finding a provider.

The evaluation included a series of surveys, called the National Beneficiary Surveys, which included a nationally representative sample of all beneficiaries and a sample of beneficiaries who used TTW. In total, we conducted more than 20,000 beneficiary interviews on a range of issues, including disability and work status, awareness of TTW and other work incentive programs, program experiences, employment services used, health and functional status, health insurance, income and other assistance, sociodemographic characteristics, and other issues. Findings from the 2008 evaluation report noted that TTW increased beneficiary use of employment services in 2002 and 2003, the first two rollout years. But the increase did not appear to produce a corresponding increase in beneficiary earnings or a reduction in benefit payments. The authors noted that impacts for 2004 and later might be larger as participation rates continue to increase, and many nonparticipants said they planned to use TTW. Nevertheless, analysis of trends in TTW payment data suggests that the program would have to induce future shifts in beneficiary behavior that are much larger than what has been observed so far to generate the level of exits from the program envisioned by Congress. In particular, meeting the exit goal will require TTW participation to increase substantially and a larger share of participants to earn enough so that they no longer receive cash benefits.

From the studies conducted for the final evaluation report completed in 2013, it appears that changes in SSA support for employment services implemented under TTW and related programs had a limited but positive effect on the employment of Social Security disability beneficiaries and motivated some to pursue employment. The 2008 revisions to the TTW regulations reinvigorated the program by modestly expanding the number of employment networks and increasing their level of activity in the TTW program. The number of beneficiaries who assigned a Ticket under an employment network payment system more than doubled between June 2008 and December 2009. The revised regulations also appear to have improved the viability of employment networks, increasing both the timing and amounts of payments received for successfully serving TTW participants. Although relatively few beneficiaries enrolled in SSA-funded employment support programs through TTW, those who used such services had better employment outcomes and were more likely to leave benefits than those who did not.

Beneficiary employment was adversely affected by the 2007–2009 recession and its aftermath, which confounded comparisons of TTW participant employment outcomes during the pre- and post-TTW regulation change periods. Although the employment and earnings of TTW participants were lower, on average, after the revised regulations took effect, beneficiary satisfaction with TTW services was greater. We found evidence that TTW is targeting people interested in employment, but rigorous impact analyses failed to provide strong evidence that the changes in SSA support for employment services implemented under TTW increased beneficiary employment above what it would have been if SSA had only continued to make payments to state vocational rehabilitation agencies under the previous system.