Understanding Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

A Guide for TANF Staff Members

By Rachel Pardoe

Policymakers and program operators have long worked to understand how state and federal programs can best serve low-income families 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 which 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, 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 overlap 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.

TANF is a program built around an expectation of work. States are required to track and document recipients’ participation in work activities. Yet because TANF also serves some individuals with work limitations, administrators face the dual challenge of supporting these recipients while meeting federal work participation requirements. SSI may be a more appropriate option for some TANF recipients with disabilities; however, being considered unable to work by a state or local TANF agency does not necessarily signify eligibility for SSI, and a large proportion of TANF recipients who apply for SSI are not approved. Through the field assessments conducted as part of the TSDTP, the project team found that state and local TANF staffs from participating TSDTP sites are generally not well informed about SSI’s rules and eligibility process. The project team also found that those staffs have substantial interest in learning more so they can better inform their clients about the SSI program and its requirements.

This brief describes the basic SSI disability determination process and compares and contrasts it with several procedures different TANF agencies use to identify recipients who meet TANF work-limitation criteria in states or localities. It goes on to discuss some of the different strategies TANF agencies use to gauge which individuals are most likely to qualify for SSI and thus should perhaps apply for it. It includes some observations about the key decisions facing clients with disabilities in navigating the two programs. Lastly, it reviews the employment support programs that both SSA and state TANF agencies provide to people with disabilities who can work.

Document Details

Publication Type
December 2013
Pardoe, Rachel. 2013. Understanding Supplemental Security Income (SSI). New York: MDRC.