En español |Q: I've heard that Social Security has a program to help disabled people who want to go back to work. What are the basics?
A: The program's centerpiece is called Ticket to Work, which encourages people with disabilities, ages 18 to 64, to try to return to work and become more financially independent. Ticket to Work arranges free vocational training, rehabilitation, job referrals and employment assistance. Services are provided through private employment networks and state vocational rehabilitation agencies that partner with Social Security.
See also: AARP Social Security Calculator
If you receive benefits from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you're eligible. As of May 21, 2013, there were 320,340 people taking part in Ticket to Work and other vocational programs. For more information, go to www.choosework.net.
Q: But if I start working, won't I lose my disability benefits right away?
A: No. Social Security understands that going back to work from disability is no easy task, and that some people may try and fail. So for SSDI beneficiaries it has a "trial work period," which allows you to test your ability to work for at least nine months without loss of benefits — no matter how much you earn. After that, you have special status for another 36 months. You can receive benefits for any month in which your earnings do not exceed $1,040 (the ceiling for 2013). It's only if you earn more than that amount that your benefits will be suspended. People who are blind can earn up to $1,740 a month.
There are other incentives to enroll. For instance, you'll be able to keep your Medicare or Medicaid health coverage. And you're promised that while you're in the program, Social Security won't hit you with a medical "Continuing Disability Review," which can lead to your disability status being revoked.
The SSI program has no trial work period, but beneficiaries are encouraged to develop a Plan for Achieving Self Support (PASS) and submit it to SSA. Although additional earnings often reduce SSI benefits, an SSA-approved PASS plan can let you set aside income or assets to achieve goals, such as training for a new job or starting a business. Generally speaking, SSI pays benefits to people who have low incomes and few resources and are 65 or older and blind or disabled. PASS can open doors to independence for some of them.
Q: How can I find the agencies that will help me get work?
A: Staff members at the Ticket to Work call center at 866-968-7842 toll-free (TTY 866-833-2967) can give you the names, addresses and telephone numbers of employment networks or the state vocational rehabilitation agency in your area. You also can get this information online at choosework.net by selecting Find Help.
Q: What's the philosophy driving this program?
A: Well, obviously, getting people off disability helps the increasingly pressured finances of the system. But Social Security says that many people stand to be happier by going back to work.
"Employment defines and, in many cases, redefines how we see ourselves and how others see us," says Social Security Associate Commissioner Bob Williams. Work, he adds, opens the way to greater financial independence, increased productivity and self-respect: "The employment and work incentives programs we run at SSA offer beneficiaries the opportunities, tools and supports they need to achieve these goals."
Q: What are the main challenges that Social Security faces with this program?
A: The primary challenge, according to Williams, is to identify beneficiaries who are most likely to become and stay gainfully employed. Research, he said, shows that a majority of the disabled are in no position to work because of poor health or lack of education and skills. Yet the research also shows that a significant number want to work and earn their way off their benefit checks so they can have a better life. So each month Social Security makes automated phone calls about Ticket to Work to 20,000 people who recently became eligible for disability benefits and are viewed as likely to succeed in the program.
Williams adds that it takes a leap of faith for some disabled people to risk giving up their benefit checks for a job, especially if the job offers a low wage. "Individuals need to be able to see the supports and incentives we offer as providing them the fair chance and tools to create a better life — one in which the benefit is not only replaced, but is replaced by earnings sufficient for true financial security."
Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.