TANF/SSI Disability Transition Project


While welfare agencies and the federal disability system have common goals of supporting people with disabilities and helping them become more independent, the two systems often have diverging interests as well. Differing missions, programmatic and financial challenges, definitions of disability, and rules and incentives related to work make it challenging for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs to work together. Moreover, TANF recipients who apply for SSI confront conflicting messages regarding work requirements and benefit eligibility that can undermine efforts to meet their needs, as well as their ability to work and become more independent.

In order to address these problems, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services contracted with MDRC to assist ACF and the Social Security Administration (SSA) to manage the TANF/SSI Disability Transition Project (TSDTP). TSDTP sought to better understand the relationship between the TANF and SSI systems with regard to TANF applicants and recipients who might have a disability. By working closely with both federal agencies and participating state TANF agencies, the project analyzed program data and developed and implemented pilot tests of program interventions targeted to this population. Families, states, TANF agencies, and SSA can all benefit when this population receives appropriate services efficiently — moving toward employment when possible, making informed decisions about applying to SSI, and receiving SSI as quickly as possible when they are eligible, while agencies reduce administrative costs. These were the goals of TSDTP.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

TSDTP consisted of two phases. In the first phase, TANF and SSI data were merged and analyzed to document the extent to which TANF applicants and recipients were connected with the SSI system and how they contributed to the overall dynamics of caseload changes in SSI. To complement this analysis, the MDRC team conducted field assessments of the TANF/SSI links in a number of participating states to better understand how TANF agencies worked with participants who had been identified as having a work limitation due to a disability. For example, the team assessed how agencies determined such participants’ ability to work and limitations on work, their potential eligibility for SSI, and whether and how they were involved in employment-related activities. The field assessments also examined the interactions between TANF agencies and local SSA offices. Technical assistance was provided, as necessary, to help develop programs or enhance services targeted to this population and to strengthen the connections between TANF and SSI programs and services.

The second phase of the project used the knowledge developed during the first phase to help develop three pilot programs that served TANF participants with disabilities. Given the complexity of the TANF and SSI systems and their intersection, the TSDTP pilot programs varied by state depending on a variety of factors, including the rules and structure of the TANF programs involved, the disabilities and other characteristics of the state or local target populations, the employment services and other support available, and the conditions in the local labor markets. MDRC provided continuing advice and technical assistance to ensure the implementation of strong program models. In addition, the feasibility of a rigorous experimental evaluation of the pilot models was considered. At the end of the project, the pilot programs were assessed in a final report.

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The primary intent of the project was to develop knowledge. This was done through an analysis of linked TANF/SSI data provided by SSA, and by pilot testing program models. Qualitative interviews, field observations, and analyses of local data also informed the findings.