Examining the Interaction Between Welfare and Disability

Lessons from an In-Depth Data Analysis

By Melanie Skemer, Brian Bayes

Policymakers and program operators have long worked to understand how state and federal programs can best serve low-income families who are headed by a parent (or parents) with a disability. The Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program, administered by the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), serves low-income families, some of whom include individuals who have work limitations or disabilities. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program, administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA), serves low-income individuals who are aged, blind, or disabled. While ACF and SSA have common goals of supporting vulnerable populations while encouraging their self-sufficiency and employment, the two agencies’ differing missions, programmatic and financial challenges, definitions of disability, and rules and incentives related to work pose challenges to coordinating their efforts.

In order to understand how best to help TANF recipients with disabilities, ACF and SSA contracted with MDRC to conduct the TANF/SSI Disability Transition Project (TSDTP). The goals of the TSDTP are to explore the connection between the two programs, build knowledge about ways to encourage work among TANF recipients with disabilities, facilitate informed decisions about applying for SSI when appropriate, and help eligible SSI applicants receive awards as quickly as possible while also reducing administrative costs. Through MDRC’s close collaboration with ACF, SSA, and participating state and county TANF agencies, the TSDTP conducted field assessments of existing services for TANF recipients who may have disabilities, tested pilot programs targeted to this population, and analyzed national- and state-level program data.

This brief uses the TSDTP analysis of merged national-level TANF and SSI data — two rich data sources that have never before been linked — to better understand the extent of overlap between the two programs. Given that TANF and SSI both provide support to low-income people, some degree of overlap between the populations they serve is to be expected. Although there are different theories as to the size and nature of this overlap, thus far only limited research has focused on directly addressing such questions. This brief seeks to close this knowledge gap, using a unique merged data set to assess and characterize the interaction between the welfare and disability systems.

Based on the TSDTP data, the research team has arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. New SSI applicants rarely receive TANF in the months before they apply for SSI, and some of them apply for SSI before receiving TANF.
  2. TANF recipients who apply for SSI are not at particularly high risk of losing their TANF benefits.
  3. The medical award rate among TANF recipients who apply for SSI is comparable to that of SSI applicants who have not received TANF recently, once important age differences between these groups are taken into account.

Document Details

Publication Type
December 2013
Skemer, Melanie and Brian Bayes. 2013. Examining the Interaction Between Welfare and Disability. New York: MDRC.