Child SSI Recipients Preparing for the Transition to Adult Life
Document date: May 23, 2005
Released online: May 23, 2005
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This paper uses the newly released National Survey of Children and Families (NSCF) to study the transition experiences of child Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients just prior to and after age 18. Since reforms passed in 1996, child SSI recipients must now have their eligibility for benefits redetermined at age 18 using the adult disability standard. We study the work preparation activities and family circumstances of a pre-transition cohort of young people ages 14 to 17 in 2000. We also examine a post-transition cohort of young people ages 19 to 23 in 2000, comparing income, work, personal and family circumstances of those on SSI benefits after age 18 to those who no longer receive these benefits.
We find that the pre-transition SSI recipients come from economically disadvantaged families in which many parents are not working, have low levels of education, or do not speak English. Only a minority of these recipients had ever participated in vocational training or vocational rehabilitation (VR) and many had never heard of SSI work incentive provisions. In addition, more than one in six reported serious behavior problems in school or trouble with the juvenile justice system.
Our findings for the post-transition cohort show that those who no longer receive SSI at age 18 ("off SSI") are in better health and more likely to be working than those who continue on benefits ("on SSI"). We also find that some who are off SSI at age 18 are replacing that income from alternative sources, though most continue to have incomes below poverty and about one-half dropped out of school and a third have been arrested. Interestingly, we find that participation in vocational training or VR was not correlated with continuation of SSI benefits after age 18, though it was correlated with working past age 18.
These findings should be relevant to ongoing efforts to improve the transition process for child SSI recipients and to understand some of the circumstances of young people after the age 18 redetermination.
For young people receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a means-tested cash benefit for children with disabilities, the transition into young adulthood is complicated for several reasons. Health issues, service needs, and lack of access to supports can complicate planning and preparing for future schooling, work, and independent living. These issues are especially pressing at age 18 because, following legislative changes in 1996, child SSI recipients have their benefits redetermined under the adult disability criteria. Some child SSI beneficiaries lose eligibility at this redetermination because they do not meet the adult SSI disability criteria.
This paper uses newly released data from the Social Security Administration (SSA), the National Survey of Children and Families (NSCF), to study this transition period for cohorts of child SSI recipients just prior to and after the age 18 redetermination. To date, information on the transition experiences of child SSI recipients has been hampered by data limitations. Our analysis addresses this gap by providing detailed information on an array of program, school, training, rehabilitation, and employment issues facing youth during this transition period.
We first examine the characteristics of child SSI recipients who are between the ages of 14 to 17 in 2000, which we refer to as the "pre-transition cohort." This analysis provides a snapshot of the characteristics and activities of child SSI recipients just prior to their age 18 redetermination.
The second part focuses on those who were receiving child SSI benefits in 1996 and are between the ages of 19 to 23 in 2000, which we refer to as the "post-transition cohort." We stratify the post-transition cohort into subgroups of those remaining on SSI after age 18 ("on SSI") and those who were cut or left SSI at the age 18 redetermination ("off SSI"). This analysis provides important insights on the potential longer-term prospects for program participation, employment, and independent living, as well as addresses often cited concerns regarding whether former child SSI recipients who leave SSI are able to find other sources of support.
Our analysis of the demographic and economic characteristics of pre- and post-transition age SSI recipients reinforces the idea that these young people come from economically disadvantaged families. Many parents are not working, rely on welfare, have low levels of education, or do not speak English, all of which can be barriers to accessing services and helping children with disabilities make a positive transition to adulthood. While many of these families are low-income, surprisingly, approximately two-thirds of child SSI recipients do not receive food stamps. The low rate of food stamp participation combined with their low income levels suggests that potential outreach strategies to child SSI recipients, as well as young adult SSI recipients, might be necessary to ensure potential eligibles are receiving the appropriate benefits.
The initial transitions after age 18 suggest that some who are off SSI at 18 are finding alternative sources of income, but many are also struggling to make ends meet. Those who are off SSI have on average about the same income-to-needs ratio as those who remain on SSI, but a significantly larger percent are below poverty. Additionally, living arrangements change after age 18 and are related to economic well-being. We find that, post-transition, young adults living in a two-parent family have significantly higher incomes relative to other former child SSI recipients regardless of SSI status. While the majority of child SSI recipients before and after transition live in a family with at least one parent, and approximately one-fourth live in a two-parent family, those who no longer receive SSI are more likely to be living alone or with another relative. In designing interventions, it is important to consider how these arrangements could influence the delivery of important services.
A major concern is the high rates of reported school problems, dropouts, and previous arrests across the pre and post-transition cohorts. A sizable percentage of pre-transition cohort recipients show signs of troubled behavior in school, such as cutting classes multiple times in the year or being suspended or expelled in the past year. More importantly, approximately half the post-transition cohort has not finished secondary school, including 48 percent of those off SSI who have completely dropped out of school. Potentially more importantly, almost 15 percent of those under 17 have been arrested or report some type of trouble with the courts. The problems for those over age 18 are even higher, especially for those who are off SSI (32 percent). These problems in school and with the juvenile justice system likely represent a direct impediment to the achievement of positive transition goals for these young people.
We find mixed evidence on the potential value of expanding preparation activities, such as vocational training and vocational rehabilitation (VR). A minority of SSI recipients in the pre-transition cohort participated in either vocational training or VR (21 percent). However, participation in these activities is significantly lower for those with a more serious health limitation, suggesting that these activities could be less available or be of less interest for certain segments of the population.
Participation in these activities is not correlated with lower likelihood of continuing on to the adult SSI program. For the post-transition cohort, we find no significant differences in training programs across those off and on after age 18. We find that participation in VR is higher among those who stay on, which likely reflects that many former recipients do not start receiving these services until they leave school. These results suggest that an "across the board" increase in participation in vocational training or VR may not result in a decrease in the number of former child SSI recipients participating in the adult SSI program.
However, we do find that participation in vocational training is correlated with employment past age 18. We find the relationship between vocational training and "any" and "full-time" employment is especially strong. Some of these results likely represent unobserved differences in characteristics across those who participate in vocational training (e.g., taste for work). However, the size of this effect suggests that educators and administrators might want to closely examine vocational training opportunities for youth with disabilities, particularly in a time where these opportunities appear to be shrinking as school districts move to more standardized testing.
Our comparisons within the post-transition cohort of those who remain on SSI as adults to those who leave SSI at age 18 illustrates some important differences across these groups and also highlights some possible additional areas for policy intervention. Youth off SSI after 18 are in better health, are more likely to be working, and are more likely to be working full-time compared to those on SSI. These results follow from the concept that those who do not meet the adult SSI disability criteria have greater capacity for work than those who do meet these criteria. However, our findings suggest there are still subsets of young people losing benefits that might need some level of continued support. The nature of the data does not allow for us to shed light directly on the impact of the age 18-redetermination decision or whether that policy should be altered. However, the findings do suggest that policy makers might wish to consider intervention options in smoothing the transition for those who lose benefits.
In summary, these findings should be relevant to SSA's ongoing efforts to improve the transition process for child SSI recipients. They provide insights on the child SSI recipients' participation in transition activities, the connection to employment after redetermination, and the differences across those on and off SSI after age 18. This information can be used by policy makers in designing interventions to serve child SSI recipients through SSA programs or in collaboration with other agencies, especially the Department of Education.
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