Utilizing SSA Work Incentives

Are We Overlooking Valuable Resources for Students as We Plan Their Transition from School to Work?

Ellen Condon, Transition Projects Director

University of MT, Rural Institute on Disabilities

Poor post-school outcomes for students with disabilities has been a continual cause for concern for educators and policy makers since the 1980s. A 1999 report by the Office of Inspector General for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services linked poor transition outcomes for youth with disabilities to factors such as lack of employment preparation, transition planning, lack of services and linkages to agencies prior to high school exit. While waiting lists for adult services averaging 5 years exist nationally (Wehman, 2001), resources such as Social Security work incentives which could be used to enhance transition planning, promote linkages between schools and agencies, and promote employment outcomes, remain underutilized.

The Social Security Work Incentive Program, which allows Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients to set aside income and resources to fund vocational services and supports, has been in place since 1974. However, the number of individuals accessing this program nationally is minimal. According to the September 2003 quarterly report from Social Security, “SSI Disabled Recipients Who Work,” 1,785 PASS plans (Plans for Achieving Self-Support) are currently active in the United States, but only five PASS plans are in active status for individuals under the age of 18. Seventy-three PASS plans are active for young adults ages 18-21years old. According to the Social Security Administration (SSA) in 1999, 36,000 people aged 18-24 were receiving SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits concurrently; potentially all 36,000 were eligible for PASS plans.

While PASS plans won’t solve all the needs of unserved or underserved people within the disabilities systems, they could make a significant dent in the problem. Work incentives such as PASS plans have been used successfully to bridge the gap in services for students who are exiting school and being placed on adult services waiting lists, and PASS plans have been utilized to enhance transition-to-employment services for students who are still in school (Condon & Pesheck, 2002; Condon, Moses, Brown, & Jurica, 2003; Condon, Brown & Jurica, 2004: Condon, Brown & Jurica, 2005). Additionally, money generated by a PASS plan can be leveraged to entice other agencies to come to the table so to speak, and fund services to support employment for a student as a collaborative investment, where they may have been reluctant to serve as the sole financial support.

Although schools are required by law to assist families in connecting with appropriate agencies and resources as a component of transition planning, many school personnel have little information or experience with Social Security benefits or work incentives. Comprehensive surveys of school personnel, school administrators, adult service administrators, and adult service providers in Montana consistently identified that service personnel felt it was their responsibility to refer students and families to SSA, but seldom indicated that they had any involvement, responsibility, or experience in the actual development of an application for SSA benefits or work incentives (Vogelsberg, McGregor, Buck, & Vanek, 2002). Virginia Commonwealth University estimated that only 15% of parents learn of the SSI program through school personnel (cited by Johnson, D. 2002).

In two Model Transition Demonstration projects in Montana, funded by the U.S. Department of Education, and a third project funded by the Montana Council on Developmental Disabilities, Social Security work incentives are being incorporated into transition planning for students with labels of severe disabilities and ongoing support needs. Work incentives can be a valuable resource in transition planning for several reasons. Work incentives are proving to be one avenue for generating financial resources which can support career development and employment for students while they are in school (for students who are eligible) and as they transition to adulthood. In a PASS plan, income or resources can be sheltered and used to support employment preparation at the time the PASS is approved or saved to purchase future employment supports, services or equipment. This incentive is a viable alternate funding source to pay for supports necessary to obtain or maintain employment for students as they graduate from high school and may be placed on waiting lists for adult service agencies that provide these services.

Work incentives such as PASS plans can be a source of consumer controlled funds and promote choice and control for families and students who are eligible and utilize them. PASS plans are flexible in what they fund, as long as it supports employment and is written into a plan which is approved by Social Security. PASS plans have been utilized to purchase vehicles, job development services, Vocational Evaluations (or community-based alternatives such as the Vocational Profile), transportation, equipment needed to start a small business and many other items or services needed to assist someone to become employed, advance in their employment, or in the case of someone who utilizes supported employment services, maintain employment. The restrictions regarding who you can contract with to provide services are fewer using a PASS plan than if you were using state or federal disability funds, which again increases consumer choice and control. They can be used to bridge the gap between youth and adult life while allowing students and families to choose what they need for supports, services or equipment and whom they would like to provide these services.

Are students really eligible for PASS plans?

In January of 2005, the amount of wages students were allowed to earn before impacting their SSI checks was increased to $1,410/month or a total of $5670/ year. This incentive is referred to as the Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE). While students are unlikely to earn enough money to reduce their SSI check (due to SEIE) they could use a PASS to save money over the SSI resource limit of $2,000. Or, as soon as they graduate from school, their wages, after the first $85/month (if they only receive SSI), will begin reducing their monthly SSI check, thereby making them eligible for a PASS. In Montana schools that are participating in the Transition demonstration grants, our goal is to graduate students with severe disabilities into paid jobs, customized for them through an individualized Discovery and Vocational Profile process, working at least 20 hours/week. In one Montana school the three graduates involved in the projects were working upon graduation but were placed on waiting lists for employment services from the state Developmental Disabilities agency. All three students do require some form of ongoing supports to maintain employment. PASS plans were written for each student sheltering their wages or unearned income, to pay for their needed supports. It was essential for each student’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) team to organize these supports in the student’s Needed Transition Services and link them to appropriate agencies that could fund and provide these services prior to graduation. PASS plans were written, submitted to the PASS Cadre, and approved in advance of the student graduating, contingent upon their earnings upon graduation.

When Matt turned 18, his family assisted him to apply for SSI. He was determined eligible to receive the full benefit rate of $579.00/month (2005 rate). Although Matt was working part time while he was still in school, his earnings were not above $5670/year (2005 SEIE amount) so his SSI was not yet reduced. Once he graduated, he began earning over $85/month (the earned income exclusion rate). For every $2 exceeding the first $85/month gross earnings, Matt’s SSI check would have been reduced by $1 if he had not had a PASS plan in place.

From Matt’s high school work experiences, his team knew that he would need intermittent ongoing support to enable him to remain employed. Matt had been referred to Developmental Disabilities Services for employment supports and found to be eligible, but like many young graduates, he was put on a waiting list for these services. As part of his transition planning, Platte High School set the goal to place Matt in a paid job prior to exiting high school. If Matt was working 20 hours/week after graduation, he would be eligible for approximately $200/month in a PASS (the amount his SSI check would be decreased due to his wages). The need for a PASS plan was included as a Transition Service Need on his IEP.

Based upon Matt’s aptitude and interest in numbers, computers and his abilities to find mistakes, his PASS plan was written with the work goal: to obtain a position within the desk top publishing field. The plan enabled Matt to hire his family to help him get to and from work and hire a person he chose to provide the critical follow-along support for his job and receive computer tutoring to enable him to acquire skills to advance his employment. His plan was written for the period of two years. Two years post-graduation, Matt changed his Vocational Goal to that of a Literacy Tutor. He resubmitted a new PASS plan for this goal for another 18 months.

To be eligible for a PASS, an individual must have income, earned or unearned, or resources which decrease their SSI benefits. Sources of unearned income which were utilized for Montana students included: Adoption Subsidies, Survivor’s Benefits, and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), through a retired or disabled parent’s SSA account. In these cases, PASS plans began for students as young as age 14 and PASS funds were set aside for future support needs or utilized to purchase services, supports, or items necessary to achieve a current Vocational Goal.

Questions to ask at IEP meetings that might help identify students who are eligible for work incentives:

  • Is the student receiving SSI?
  • If yes, is it less than the federal benefit rate ($579/month, 2005)?
  • If it is less than $579, why?

If there is income that is reducing the amount of their SSI check, they might be eligible for a PASS now.

A student might be eligible in the future if they are receiving SSI and
a parent dies, retires or begins receiving Social Security Disability Benefits;
or the student graduates and begins earning over $85/month.

Who can assist schools and families with work incentives?

Several resources are available nationally. Each state had a Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) office which provides assistance with SSA benefits planning, and information on work incentives. This was previously called the Benefits Planning, Assistance and Outreach Program, but in October 2006, the Social Security Administration (SSA) renamed the program as the Work Incentives Planning and Assistance (WIPA) program. The program was renamed because of an increased emphasis on work incentives, return to work supports and jobs for beneficiaries. A directory of WIPAs by state can be found on Social Security web site.

Also available are Protection and Advocacy programs for Beneficiaries of Social Security (PABSS), which can assist with benefits analyses, accessing work incentives and basic advocacy with Social Security issues. For a list of Protection and Advocacy Organizations, visit the Social Security Administration website.

Your local Vocational Rehabilitation office and One Stop Career Centers may have people on staff who assist with work incentives or they should at least have a list of employment vendors who provide Social Security work incentives as a service in your area. Ten regional PASS Cadres are located around the country. PASS representatives can assist you to develop and manage your PASS. For the contact in your area visit the Social Security Administration website.


Social Security work incentives such as PASS plans can be a valuable transition resource for eligible students with disabilities during school and as they graduate. Strategies to increase the utilization of PASS plans need to be incorporated into transition planning for students. The development of PASS plans needs to be thought of as a Needed Transition Service as schools are forming interagency linkages to support the positive outcomes for students with disabilities.

Visit the Rural Institute Transition and Employment Projects Training page for additional resources on employment and SSA work incentives.

Condon, E., Brown, K., Jurica, J. (2005). It Takes a Village. [monograph]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana Rural Institute on Disabilities.

Condon, E., Brown, K., Jurica, J. (2004). Manage the Bucks. [monograph]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana Rural Institute on Disabilities.

Condon, E., Brown, K., Jurica, J. (2004). One Size Doesn’t fit All. [monograph]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana Rural Institute on Disabilities.

Condon, E., Moses, L., Brown, K., Jurica, J. (2003). PASS the Bucks [monograph]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana Rural Institute on Disabilities.

Condon, E. & Pesheck. (2002). Nurturing the Seeds [monograph]. Missoula, MT: University of Montana Rural Institute on Disabilities.

Johnson, D. (2002). “The Importance of SSI Work Incentives for Transition-Aged Youth with Disabilities, Impact, (15), 1, Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota.

Office of the Inspector General, (1999). Report from Office of the Inspector General regarding employment programs for persons with disabilities. Report #OEI-07-98-00260, Washington, D.C.

Social Security Administration, Office of Research, Evaluation and Statistics. (2003). Quarterly report on SSI disabled recipients who Work: September 2003. Washington, D.C.: Author.

Social Security Administration (2001). SSI Annual Statistical Report 2001. Washington, DC: Author.

Wehman, P. (2001). Life Beyond the Classroom: transition strategies for young people with disabilities. Baltimore, MD: Paul H. Brookes Publishing Co.