On Tuesday, December 2, the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and the Brookings Institution sponsored a briefing, Helping youth with disabilities flourish: Improving outcomes for children in the Supplemental Security Income program.”

The briefing focused on the issue of disabled children and youth on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and their transition to adulthood with the discussion focused on how to help these youth transition to either an adult disability status on SSI or, when possible, transition some into independence.  The issue overlaps with child welfare in that some children in care qualify for SSI disability or SSDI.  SSI is Title XVI of the Social Security Act and is paid for from general federal tax revenue for disabled children and adults.  The federal government pays for the bulk of the benefit but 45 states supplement that monthly assistance.  SSDI is actually a part of Social Security under Title II of the Social Security Act.  A child in foster care could qualify for either of these programs by being a dependent of a disabled or deceased adult who was eligible for Social Security (Title II) or by being disabled and meeting the income thresholds for SSI (Title XVI).  To qualify under the SSI program, a child must have a physical or mental impairment or a combination of the two according to standards that were narrowed in 1996.  To be eligible a child’s family income is “deemed” or allocated to the child and if they meet both the medical qualifications and income requirements a monthly benefit is calculated. Nationally there are an estimated 1.3 million children on SSI disability, which, according to the Social Security Administration, represents fewer than 1 in 4 disabled children nationally.

Much of the Tuesday presentation examined some pilot projects referred to as Youth Transition Demonstration (YTD) projects.  These projects include strategies that focus on vocational training, successful use of support and transitional services, work incentives, career counseling and coordination of services.  Thomas Fraker, Mathematica Policy Research, discussed some of his work analyzing the projects (An Analysis of 1-Year Impacts of Youth Transition Demonstration Projects) and how some programs did result in positive outcomes for the youth that participated.

SSI and SSDI have largely been raised within child welfare in regard to the issue of states using the SSI and SSDI benefits as a way to reimburse the child welfare funding in a given state.  The Supreme Court has upheld this practices a decade and a half ago but some advocacy organizations are arguing for the money to be passed through to the child in some manner. But beyond the limited information on states reporting this reimbursement as part of their child welfare spending, there is limited information on how many children in foster care are eligible and being covered by either program.  States do screen children in care but the level of that screening (just as overall SSI eligibility determination) varies by state since eligibility is carried out by state systems.

It raises important questions in regard to the child welfare population.  Key questions include, how many children currently in care are on SSI due to disability, for example, how many of the more than 100,000 waiting to be adopted are SSI disability children?  If a child is part of the 50 percent of the population that exits foster care for reunification, could some of these children qualify for SSI? Could that help that family remain unified?  How many youth aging out of foster care where covered under SSI disability and what is their experience once they age out of foster care?

Any discussion of SSI disability could come in a new Congress that may be looking more critically at entitlements including ways to reduce children on SSI. The number of children on SSI did increase during the recession but those increases have now leveled off.

A copy of the information including a video is available here.