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SSA and Abt Release Volume on Lessons From 30 Years of Demonstration Projects

SSDI and SSI interventions tested so far: More successful in producing increases in employment than sustained higher earnings, reduced benefit payments, or disability program exit

Rockville, Md.  –  The Social Security Administration (SSA) and Abt Global have released a book, Lessons from SSA Demonstrations for Disability Policy and Future Research, that summarizes more than 30 years of demonstration projects, which tested new policies. The demonstrations aimed at improving the biggest federal disability programs, Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and helping the people who rely on them.  Understanding this research is critical for developing sound, evidence-based disability policies and effective supports for disability beneficiaries who want to work.

The volume is based on a State of the Science meeting that SSA, Abt, and its partner, the Hatcher Group, organized in spring 2021 to review the key lessons from SSA’s demonstrations. Recordings of the meeting can be found on Abt’s website and additional information is on SSA’s website.

The main takeaways from the analysis include:

  • Policymakers should reconsider expectations about how many SSDI beneficiaries and SSI recipients will return to work and expectations for defining successful return to work outcomes.
  • Additionally, it is important to determine what society is most interested in—measures of well-being or measures of program savings and program exit.
  • Overall, the interventions tested so far have had more success producing increases in employment than sustained higher earnings, reduced benefit payments, or disability program exit. 
  • Different populations have different needs, and while targeting can be challenging, it also can be more effective.
  • To improve demonstration design and research, it is important for policymakers to ensure a diverse set of stakeholders, researchers, and participants in demonstrations.
  • Evaluation designs that examine the effects of separate intervention components can improve on past evaluations to identify the impact of specific program features.
  • New data matches, qualitative data, and implementation measures can go beyond the impact analyses to explain why a demonstration had its measured effect.

“This new volume showcases the singular value of SSA’s temporary demonstration authority, both in identifying impacts and highlighting what we don’t know yet,” said Austin Nichols, principal investigator for Abt Global. “Popular ideas focus on changes to benefit rules, which tend to have very small impacts on employment. More comprehensive and targeted services tend to have larger impacts. A lot of the promising avenues would need new research to refine their design if we want to build the most effective policies.”

Contributors to the volume are affiliated with the following institutions: Abt Global; Bloomberg School of Public Health;  California Policy Lab; Mathematica; Center on Budget and Policy Priorities; Federal Statistical Research Data Center; Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley; The Urban Institute; Johns Hopkins University; Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University; Michigan United Cerebral Palsy; National Bureau of Economic Research; Office of Disability Employment Policy, US Department of Labor; Office of Policy Development and Research, US Department of Housing and Urban Development; Office of Research, Demonstration, and Employment Support, Social Security Administration; Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, Social Security Administration; Rehabilitation Research and Training Center, Virginia Commonwealth University; University of California Los Angeles; The Data Foundation; The George Washington University; The University of Chicago; University of California, Berkeley; University of Maryland, Baltimore County; University of Maryland School of Medicine; University of New Hampshire; University of Wisconsin-Madison; US Government Accountability Office; W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research; Williams College; and Work Incentive Planning and Assistance National Training and Data Center, Virginia Commonwealth University.

About Abt Global
Abt Global is a global consulting and research firm that combines data and bold thinking to improve the quality of people's lives. We partner with clients and communities to advance equity and innovation—from creating scalable digital solutions and combatting infectious disease, to mitigating climate change and evaluating programs for measurable social impact.

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