Employment Outcomes of SSDI Beneficiaries

Principal Investigator: J. Martin Giesen, jmg1@ra.msstate.edu

Many individuals who are blind and visually impaired (B/VI) receive financial supports through the federal Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, which provides monthly payments to those who are unable to work due to disability. Costs for funding SSDI are large and growing (Social Security programs carried an $829 billion price tag in FY 2012), prompting rising interest in helping more SSDI recipients get off the rolls and return to work.

Approximately one-third of legally blind vocational rehabilitation (VR) consumers are also SSDI recipients. Surprisingly, B/VI consumers of VR services who are also SSDI recipients achieve competitive employment at a rate only 10% lower than that of their non-beneficiary peers. This study examines SSDI recipients who are also served by VR agencies in order to determine their employment outcomes and the factors and services that predict who will successfully find competitive sector employment.

The Study

Using RSA data from 2010 and 2011, this study includes nearly 4,500 legally blind VR consumers who also receive SSDI benefits. Researchers employed a multi-level approach to data analysis, examining the ways state-, agency-, and individual-level factors impact consumer employment outcomes, as well as how these factors influence each other.

Project 1: Consumer Characteristics

The first project tested how socioeconomic factors and demographic characteristics of SSDI beneficiaries affect their likelihood of achieving competitive employment. Results indicated that competitive employment outcomes for SSDI recipients were less likely for:

  • Residents of states with high unemployment rates
  • Consumers about age 35 or older
  • Asian Americans

Both older consumers and Asian Americans saw better employment outcomes when they were served in a VR agency focused specifically on B/VI consumers. For example, when served in combined agencies (i.e., agencies serving consumers with a wide range of disabilities), consumers who applied for VR services at age 35 or older saw lower rates of employment, that declined as they grew older, when compared to their peers served by blind-only agencies.

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The study also found that employment outcomes for SSDI recipients were enhanced for:

  • Consumers with higher levels of education
  • Consumers who had higher personal earnings at the time they applied for VR services
  • Consumers who had higher SSDI benefits at the time they applied for VR services

Conventional wisdom involving disincentives suggests that consumers receiving more substantial SSDI benefits will be less likely to return to work, because a return to work could jeopardize their receipt of benefits. However, this study found the opposite effect—the more substantial the benefits, the more likely a consumer is to return to work. One reason behind this finding could be that higher SSDI benefits indicate previous employment of substantial duration and level (beneficiaries must meet a specified level of work experience in order to qualify to receive SSDI benefits, and the amount of benefit received rises with the level of work experience). So, consumers who receive SSDI by definition have extensive work experience, a fact which may help them make the transition back to work more successfully than their peers who lack such work experience.

Previous VR outcome research has frequently found that consumers who are African American or Hispanic are less likely to find competitive employment than consumers who are white. However, this study found no significant differences in the chance for competitive employment between African American, Hispanic, and white consumers who are also SSDI beneficiaries. Once again, the fact that SSDI receipt signals extensive work experience could be at play in this finding, as the results seem to indicate that work experience mitigates race/ethnicity differences in employment outcomes.

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Project 2: Service Provision

A second research project builds on Project 1 to include a focus on services provided by VR agencies and their impact on competitive employment for consumers. For example, preliminary analyses suggest that the 22 services catalogued in the RSA data and provided by VR agencies could be grouped into five major clusters:

  • Training & Supports
  • Job-Related
  • Evaluation
  • Personal & Remedial Supports
  • College

Preliminary analyses indicate that the job-related cluster was positively related to competitive employment outcomes for consumers. Also, surprisingly, there was a trend for increased receipt of personal and remedial support services to be associated with reduced chances of competitive employment. Such preliminary findings involving services suggest that a different mindset is needed in understanding the associations between services received, consumers’ needs for services, and the implication for those needs and VR outcomes. Project 2 is continuing to take into account the factors investigated in Project 1, and adding additional information about services received in order to provide a more comprehensive “big picture” of what influences competitive employment outcomes for consumers who are blind or visually impaired and who are SSDI recipients.

Implications for Practice

  • VR agency structure matters. Older SSDI beneficiaries (mid-30s or older), Asian Americans, and women had better employment outcomes when served in blind-only agencies when compared to their peers in combined or general agencies.
  • In order to qualify for SSDI, recipients must have a substantial level of prior work experience. Results from the study indicate that this prior work experience moderates differences between races in achieving competitive employment outcomes. Based on these findings, VR agencies should emphasize enhanced work experiences for their consumers, as this work experience may help overcome race/ethnicity differences in employment outcomes.
  • Other implications for practice are being developed from other study findings.
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Project Outputs

  • SSDI Beneficiaries who are Blind or Visually Impaired is an evidence-based practice guide that presents key research findings from analyses of FY 2011 RSA-911 national data regarding what factors influence the achievement of competitive employment for consumers who are also SSDI beneficiaries at application. Recommendations for agencies and counselors derived from findings of all three studies are included.
  • Does VR Agency Structure Matter? This brief document provides a review of the research on outcomes for blind and visually impaired consumers served in separate vs. combined agencies.
  • Predictors of Outcomes for SSDI Beneficiaries: Socio-demographic Factors - Online Short Course