Implementation Lessons from the Social Security Administration’s Youth Transition Demonstration
The Social Security Administration (SSA) is conducting the Youth Transition Demonstration (YTD) as part of a broader initiative to encourage disability beneficiaries to return to work. The demonstration provides youth ages 14 through 25 with employment-related services and waivers of certain rules governing the Supplemental Security Income and Social Security Disability Insurance programs, including childhood disability benefits. The waivers augment existing financial incentives for beneficiaries to work.
Originally, SSA selected seven organizations to develop and implement YTD projects through a Request for Applications in 2003. Subsequently, SSA contracted with a Mathematica-led team, which included MDRC and TransCen, Inc., to conduct a multisite evaluation of YTD based on an experimental research design. Six projects, including three of the original seven, are participating in this evaluation.
The evaluation includes a process analysis of the implementation of the seven original projects; this report focuses on those implementation experiences. For the three projects that were subsequently selected into the random assignment evaluation, the analysis is limited to their pre-random assignment, or pilot, experiences. For the remaining four, information from the full period of program operations is included.
The seven original YTD projects were:
- Bridges to Self-Sufficiency (California)
- Colorado Youth WINS (Colorado)
- Transition WORKS (Erie County, New York)
- Smart Start (Iowa)
- Project Transition (Maryland)
- Mississippi Youth Transition Innovation (Mississippi)
- The Youth Transition Demonstration Project of the City University of New York (Bronx County, New York)
Each of the YTD projects shared common goals of improved educational and employment outcomes and reduced reliance on disability benefits for participating youth. The interventions offered a range of return-to-work supports including case management, supported employment, and benefits counseling. However, they featured a widely varied range of service delivery approaches and program components. In addition, there was diversity among the projects in terms of geographic scope, number of participants, type of lead organization, and staffing structure. This diversity provided an opportunity to explore some of the factors that lead to successful program implementation. That exploration was the basis for this report.
Based on information obtained through interactions with the seven original YTD projects, as well as a review of early project documents, six lessons emerged that may help policymakers and administrators develop, fund, and provide interventions for youth with disabilities who are making the transition from school to adulthood. Those lessons are:
- Strong partnerships are instrumental to successfully serving youth in transition. The presence of effective partnerships facilitates the delivery of services as intended, but fractures in such partnerships can lead to miscommunication and inconsistent service delivery to program participants.
- Bold initiatives to bring about systems change entail high risk. Attempts to blend funding into a single source require a high level of cooperation and buy-in among many different agencies that may have competing goals. Though highly appealing in principle, such approaches may be overly ambitious within a limited timeframe and without significant support across all funding agencies.
- There are advantages and limitations to operating youth programs on a small scale. Transition programs that choose to serve relatively small numbers of youth are better equipped to provide services to those who have high service needs. They can also more easily adapt to significant changes in the service environment. However, such programs will inevitably cost more to operate per participant, may be difficult to “scale up,” and will only be able to serve a small proportion of the target population.
- Getting to scale often entails operating the same program in multiple, highly dispersed locations with different service environments, economic conditions, and population demographics. Such geographic dispersion can be successfully managed. Having a strong project director, an effective management structure, and good communication mechanisms are key to successfully managing multiple project sites.
- To ensure a consistent focus on program goals, intervention components should be clearly defined and linked to measurable outcomes that are monitored. To help ensure successful program implementation, key stakeholders and project staff should be given a clear sense of what and how outcomes will be tracked. They should also be informed about the importance of monitoring associated benchmarks as well as how to monitor these benchmarks. Such ongoing internal evaluation facilitates the project’s ability to demonstrate its success to potential participants, funders, and other key stakeholders.
- Providing support services such as case management and benefits planning in the absence of the direct provision of employment services is unlikely to yield positive outcomes. An approach that provides support services, including case management and benefits planning and advisement, coupled with proactive employment services, such as job development and placement, may provide youth with the skills and experience that they need to become self-sufficient.
These lessons are operational in nature and are organized around best program practices. They are not intended to suggest which of the original YTD projects were most effective or had positive impacts on the transition outcomes of participating youth. Subsequent reports under this study will present findings that will speak to these issues, based on analyses of the six projects participating in the random assignment evaluation.