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Efforts to Boost Outcomes for Children with Disabilities Should Build Upon SSI’s Foundation

As my colleague Kathy Ruffing noted yesterday, the Brookings Institution hosts an event today about improving the effectiveness and efficiency of programs designed to assist poor, disabled children.  At the center of the discussion is how to improve the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for children.

SSI provides modest income support to low-income families with disabled children.  These payments play an important role in offsetting the increased costs of raising children with disabilities and reducing poverty and material hardship.

As we consider ways to improve long-term outcomes for disabled children, we should build on the stability that SSI provides for families.  Weakening SSI would reduce, rather than increase, disabled children’s chances of achieving success in adulthood.

Here are three important facts to remember as we consider how to improve disabled children’s long-term outcomes:

  • SSI helps families cover the extra costs associated with raising a disabled child. Raising a child is costly —more so for families raising a disabled child.  A new study published in a special issue of The Future of Children (the impetus for the Brookings event) reviews the literature and estimates that these families spend an average of $1,000 each year directly related to addressing the child’s disability. In addition, they incur an average of $5,150 a year in indirect costs related to reduced employment.  SSI payments help to offset these costs, as well as to provide a stable source of income to families who may have limited sources of other income.
  • SSI significantly reduces poverty and deep poverty. In our earlier post, we noted that SSI reduces poverty for recipients.  A National Bureau of Economic Research study provides further evidence of the important role that SSI plays in reducing deep poverty (defined as income below 50 percent of the poverty line).  The authors find that the income that SSI provides reduces the likelihood that recipient families will live in poverty by nearly 11 percent and the chances that they’ll live in deep poverty by more than 7 percent.
  • Income in childhood affects adult outcomes. In an article published last year summarizing what we’ve learned from numerous welfare-to-work experiments about the effects of poverty on children’s outcomes, researchers found that increases in income (regardless of their source) substantially improved poor children’s educational performance.  In addition, children under age 6 whose families earned less than $25,000 a year but received a $3,000 annual boost to income made 17 percent more as adults and worked 135 more hours per year after age 25 than otherwise-similar children whose families didn’t receive the income boost.  The experiments did not focus on the effects on disabled children in particular, but it’s likely that additional income affects their outcomes in similar ways — especially if the extra income the families receive is coupled with effective health, educational, and social services.

The income support that SSI provides is one component of a larger system of services that are intended to help disabled children succeed in school and successfully transition to adulthood.  Removing the assistance that enables families to cover the extra costs associated with raising a disabled child and to escape deep poverty will jeopardize improvement in these children’s long-term outcomes.  Instead, the path forward will come by rigorously evaluating the services provided with an eye toward expanding those that are effective and replacing those that are not.