Safety Net or Snare: What impact do federal disability benefits have on youth?

by Stars Training Academy   2 Comments


When youth labeled with a serious mental health diagnosis qualify for federal disability benefits (SSI – Supplemental Security Income or SSDI – Social Security Disability Income), does it represent a step toward self-sufficiency or a step down a slippery slope into perpetual disability and poverty? When they deem it appropriate, well-intentioned Transitional Age Youth (TAY) program staff work hard to establish SSI/SSDI for their young adult clients by supporting the finding of “complete and total disability.” What short and long term impacts does this determination have on the life trajectory of emerging adults? To what extent is it both boon and bane?

Perhaps no other decision by young adults, their families and providers has a more significant impact on youth with serious mental health conditions. (Studies indicate that less than 1% of people who are placed on SSI come off of it at a later point.) On the one hand, SSI/SSDI provides the critical means to meet basic survival needs of food and shelter. For the large percentage of impoverished young people, and especially foster youth aging out of the system, SSI/SSDI can make the difference between homelessness, hunger and exposure to further traumatization. On the other hand, it can frequently serve as a disincentive and deterrent to a youth’s career explorations and undermine their sense of self-efficacy. A key developmental task for young people is thought to be about discovering who they are and where they belong (i.e. identity formation). Being assessed as “completely disabled” can have a profound impact on this formative process.

According to reports, disability rates for the TAY age group have increased significantly. Although these young people report wanting to work and see themselves as able to work, they also indicate that they do not receive the support they need to work. Our communities, colleges and labor workforce are deprived of the considerable talents, contributions and potential of these young people. More importantly, the young people themselves miss out on the opportunities to learn skills and develop strengths through struggles, and never access the protective factors and meaningful roles that school and work can offer.

Ditching the Snare: SSI as a Step Toward Independence

What can be done? The following recommendations are offered for consideration:

  • Engage young people and their families in exploring questions about what SSI/SSDI means to them and their futures. Fully discuss and frame any disability benefit discussions with youth, young adults and their families as:
    1. An investment in the young person’s ongoing development, “discovery” and recovery
    2. A disability status for now – everyone experiences changes and fluctuations in their health and well-being over time. (We anticipate progress and growth.)
    3. An opportunity to mature and find their paths as young adults. Most TAY don’t “emancipate” until well after their 30th birthdays and require prolonged financial and emotional support to find their ways to stable employment, housing and relationships. For youth living with a mental illness who are also foster youth or coming from low income backgrounds, this uphill path can be much harder, but is definitely doable.
    4. An “emerging” identity, still under construction, but does not signify that they are “completely and totally disabled” – not now, not ever.
  • Provide active and ongoing benefits counseling. Ensure that youth and their families are familiar with SSI incentive programs such as Ticket to Work. Inform and educate TAY about how earned income will affect their benefits (if you work and collect benefits, you will always have more money than receiving benefits alone).
  • TAY programs should establish Career Development (Supported Education + Supported Employment) as priority purposes, not as an afterthought or something that can happen after symptoms are eliminated. Staffing patterns need to reflect this commitment (Having a part-time Job Developer/Van Driver won’t cut it.) Mental health symptoms, impairments and deficits should be addressed as barriers to community inclusion and full participation. Keep in mind the precept of the “dignity of risk and right to failure.”
  • Never succumb to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Whatever the level of functional impairments, keep youth engaged in a futures-oriented process that expects growth and opportunities.

What are your thoughts?

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Beth Cohen March 15, 2017 at 4:38 pm

Great points…I’m sharing with my staff!


Emery April 15, 2017 at 12:07 pm

Something I completely agree with and often remind our SOC and providers that we need to focus on supported employment from the get go and set the expectation early that’s people can work successfully with the right supports, we do the IPS supported epoyment/education model with youth. At the same time I juggle offering the SOAR approach to obtaining benefits for those who really need it. Thanks for bringing this important topic up!


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