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Johnson Opening Statement: Joint Hearing on Work Incentives in Social Security Disability Programs

September 23, 2011

Our nation’s most vulnerable citizens are at the center of a perfect storm.  Record deficits, a still struggling economy, and an unsustainable future spending path driven by the aging of Americans all threaten the essential programs those with disabilities count on.  We have been warned by the Social Security Trustees that the Disability Insurance program will soon be unable to pay full benefits beginning just seven years from now, in 2018.  

Those who depend on these critical benefits are counting on us to act and we will.  This Committee will soon hold hearings on the many challenges facing the Social Security disability program.  Today we turn to the issue of helping those already receiving benefits who want to work.   To achieve that end, Social Security administers a number of work incentive programs.  

Congress established the current State Vocational Rehabilitation Reimbursement Program in 1981 to encourage State Vocational Rehabilitation agencies to provide services that would result in work by disability beneficiaries.  Last year Social Security paid over $100 million for these services.  

In 1999, Congress passed the Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act to make it easier for beneficiaries to return to work.  The Ticket program allows beneficiaries to choose a public or private sector service provider, known as an Employment Network, to get the training and support they need to find jobs, which in turn leads to benefit savings because they leave the benefit rolls.  

Two grant programs were also created as part of the ticket legislation.  One helps beneficiaries understand Social Security’s complex rules and the other assists in the resolution of potential disputes with employers.  The authorization for these two programs expires on September 3oth, though their funding continues into next year.  

So where are we today?  As we will soon hear, while there is some progress to report, the results are disappointing and problems remain.  A recent report by the GAO found Social Security’s oversight and management of the Ticket to Work program isn’t where it needs to be.  For example, certain employment networks were telling ticket holders how they could work and keep their full benefits.   This is simply unacceptable.  

Other employment networks are increasingly splitting the ticket payment with beneficiaries while providing no direct services. At the same time I have seen for myself how beneficiaries and employers benefit when the system works.

While back home in August, I visited the Walgreens Distribution Center in Waxahachie, Texas.  There, with the help of the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitation Services, those with disabilities, including former beneficiaries, work side by side with other workers doing the same job for the same pay with the same performance.  I look forward to hearing more of their inspiring stories today.  

Despite these and other work incentives, the fact is less than half of one percent of those receiving disability benefits has left the benefit rolls to work.  Now, more than ever, how every taxpayer dollar is spent matters.  Programs that don’t achieve results must be fixed or must end.  The question we must answer today is how work incentives can achieve the results Congress and the taxpayers expect and those with disabilities deserve.