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Training, employment, and education > 30. Employment for People with Disabilities

Better coordination among 50 programs in nine federal agencies that support employment for people with disabilities could help mitigate program fragmentation and overlap, and reduce the potential for duplication or other inefficiencies.

Why This Area Is Important

 

Nearly one in five people in the United States has a disability.[1] In fiscal year 2010, the federal government obligated at least $3.5 billion in employment supports to help this population become more self-sufficient. Even so, in December 2011, the unemployment rate for people with disabilities was 13.5 percent, higher than the rate for people without disabilities (8.1 percent). Research has shown that people with disabilities may face multiple barriers to employment, including poor health or functioning; inadequate skills or training; lack of accessible workplaces or accommodations; and discrimination. Over the years, many programs across the federal government, including within the Departments of Education; Health and Human Services; Labor; and Veterans Affairs and other agencies, have been created or have evolved to address these barriers.

For 15 years, GAO has reported on the need for better coordination among all disability programs to mitigate fragmentation, overlap, and potential for duplication. As GAO reported in September 1996, programs helping people with disabilities were not working together efficiently, and people with disabilities may have been receiving duplicate services or facing service gaps due to lack of coordination. Over a decade later, in May 2008, GAO and others recommended establishing a coordinating entity—perhaps under the leadership of the executive branch—to develop a federal strategy to integrate services and support for individuals with disabilities. To date, no coordinating entity has been established, and this lack of coordination was a factor in federal disability programs remaining on GAO’s high-risk list in February 2011.



[1]U.S. Census Bureau, Americans with Disabilities: 2005. (Washington, D.C.: December 2008). Data come from the Survey of Income and Program Participation, June – September 2005.

What GAO Found

 

GAO identified 50 programs that, in fiscal year 2010, supported employment for people with disabilities and found that these programs were fragmented and often provided similar services to similar populations.[1] Among these programs, GAO included six programs that were eliminated or are slated to end by the end of fiscal year 2012.[2] The 50 programs were administered by nine federal agencies and were overseen by even more congressional committees (see figure below).[3] More than half (30) of these programs served only people with disabilities, while the other programs served a broader population but provided special consideration or gave priority in service to people with disabilities or their employers. The definitions of disability that programs used varied, and 20 percent of programs reported having no specific definition of disability. Fragmented programs that do not coordinate effectively could waste scarce funds, confuse and frustrate program beneficiaries, and limit the overall effectiveness of the federal effort.

Programs Supporting Employment for People with Disabilities, in Fiscal Year 2012, Were Fragmented across Nine Federal Agencies

Programs Supporting Employment for People with Disabilities, in Fiscal Year 2010, Were Fragmented across Nine Federal Agencies

a The Department of Labor jointly administers the Workforce Recruitment Program with the Department of Defense and the Work Opportunity Tax Credit with the Internal Revenue Service. These programs are therefore included under both the Department of Labor and each of their respective agencies in the above graphic.

Many of the 50 programs GAO identified overlapped in that they provided similar employment services to similar populations. GAO surveyed the programs and found that they provided a range of services, from employment counseling and job search assistance to tax credits for employers who hire people with disabilities. Overlap was the greatest in programs serving two distinct population groups—veterans and servicemembers; and students and young adults. GAO identified 18 programs that limited eligibility to veterans and servicemembers, 6 that limited eligibility to students and young adults, and 14 programs that did not limit eligibility to any particular population and were potentially available to individuals in these groups. For example, as shown in the table, officials at five of the six youth programs reported that they provided employment counseling, assessment, and case management. At the same time, any youth could have received these services from nine other programs that did not limit eligibility to a particular population.

Programs Providing Similar Employment Services to Similar Populations, in Fiscal Year 2010

 

Programs that limited eligibility to service-members, veterans, and/or their families
(18 total)

Programs that limited eligibility to students, transition age youth, and/or young adults
(6 total )a

Programs that limited eligibility to other populations or disabilities
(12 total)b

Programs that served all people with disabilities (14 total)

Total programs offering each service (50 total)

Employment-related information dissemination

17

5

10

10

42

Employment counseling, assessment, and case management

15

5

10

9

39

Job readiness skills

16

5

9

8

38

Job search or job placement activities

15

5

9

8

37

Job recruitment and referrals

15

5

9

7

36

Assistive technology and workplace accommodations

12

4

10

10

36

Job development

14

4

9

7

34

Job retention training

13

4

9

7

33

Support and services to employers of people with disabilities

13

3

8

8

32

On-the-job training

10

4

9

7

30

Occupational or vocational training

11

3

8

6

28

Work experience

12

5

6

4

27

Entrepreneurship training and support

10

3

7

6

26

Vocational rehabilitation

10

1

9

5

25

Supported employment

9

1

8

6

24

Assistance in earning a high school diploma or its equivalent

6

5

5

6

22

Remedial academic, English language skills, or basic adult literacy

6

4

5

4

19

Tax expenditures related to workers with disabilities

2

0

0

0

2

Source: GAO survey of federal programs that support employment for people with disabilities.

aAlthough the Job Corps program is generally limited to youth, eligible people with disabilities can participate in the program at any age. Therefore, GAO included the Job Corps program in the category, “programs that served all people with disabilities.”

bSome programs within this category limited eligibility to similar populations, such as recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income, while others were unique in limiting eligibility to certain populations. For example, one program in this category limited eligibility to Native Americans, another limited eligibility to people who are blind, and a third limited eligibility to people with disabilities and their families engaged in production agriculture.


Some programs that provided similar services to similar populations had a greater potential for duplication than others. For example, the Department of Labor’s Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program and the Local Veterans’ Employment Representatives program both reported that they provided job search and placement services to veterans with disabilities, among other similar services. Labor officials said that the veterans’ employment representatives were intended to reach out to employers and the disabled veterans’ outreach specialists were intended to work with job seekers. However, as GAO reported in May 2007, staff often performed the same roles in one-stop career centers and, in some cases, the roles were carried out by the same staff member. A recent law gave states the flexibility—subject to the approval of the Secretary of Labor—to consolidate these two programs in order to promote more efficient provision of services.[4]

In contrast, some overlapping programs have meaningful differences in their specific eligibility criteria or program design that could reduce their potential for duplication. For example, the Department of Labor’s YouthBuild program provides disadvantaged youth with education and employment skills necessary in high-demand occupations, such as construction trades; whereas the Workforce Recruitment Program for College Students with Disabilities places college students and recent graduates with disabilities in jobs and internships with primarily federal employers. In addition, while GAO identified two employment-related tax expenditures that affect veterans, the programs’ approaches differed. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit provides a tax credit to employers who hire individuals from target groups, including disabled veterans, while VA’s Compensated Work Therapy program exempts disabled veterans from paying federal taxes on income earned through the program. Finally, certain programs that provide similar services may have less potential for duplication because they may not have the capacity to serve all who apply. For instance, officials from seven programs reported a waiting list for their services.

Better coordination or streamlining of agency roles and responsibilities may address fragmentation and potential duplication or unmet needs, but officials that GAO surveyed reported limited coordination among the 50 programs. GAO asked respondents to indicate whether their program coordinated with any of the other programs surveyed. In 8 percent of cases, two programs mutually reported coordinating. However, in most cases, respondents either reported not coordinating or inconsistently reported coordinating with other programs. For example, although the Department of Education’s Vocational Rehabilitation Services program reported coordinating with the Department of Health and Human Services’ Medicaid 1915(c) Home and Community Based Services Waiver program and the Department of Labor’s Disabled Veterans’ Outreach Program, only one of these two programs—the waiver program—reported coordinating with the Vocational Rehabilitation Services program. GAO plans to conduct additional work on the extent of coordination among selected programs as part of a more detailed report on programs that support employment for people with disabilities.

As GAO reported in October 2006, interagency collaboration can be enhanced when agencies work toward a common goal, establish complementary strategies for achieving that goal, and use common performance measures when appropriate.[5] Although 82 percent (41) of the 50 programs tracked at least one employment-related outcome measure, the measures varied across programs. Twenty-two programs reported that they did not track or monitor any outcome measures specifically for people with disabilities—mostly those that did not limit eligibility to this population. Only six programs monitored whether they helped reduce participants’ reliance on federal cash benefits. In August 2007, experts at a GAO forum recommended that the federal government establish a set of program outcome indicators to measure the success of federal disability programs. An important consideration in developing such measures is the challenge of comparing outcomes while accounting for variations in the type and severity of participants’ disabilities.



[1]In commenting on a draft of this section, a Department of Defense official requested that GAO add two programs that he believed to be within the scope of this review. GAO has added the two programs to the list in appendix III. GAO will pursue additional information on these programs for a final report on employment support for people with disabilities, to be issued later in 2012.

[2]Specifically, five programs—two of which were demonstration studies of limited duration—had ended by December 2011 and agency officials expected one more to sunset by the end of fiscal year 2012. The Department of Education’s fiscal year 2012 budget request proposed eliminating or consolidating an additional three programs into its Vocational Rehabilitation State Grants program in order to reduce duplication of effort and administrative costs, streamline program administration at the federal and local levels, and improve efficiency and accountability. However, funds were appropriated for all three programs in fiscal year 2012. GAO did not include or review programs that may have been created or revised after fiscal year 2010.

[3]Programs that serve wounded, ill, or injured servicemembers were included within the scope of analysis.

[4]VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, Pub. L. No. 112-56, § 241(c), 125 Stat. 712, 728.

[5]GAO, Results-Oriented Government: Practices That Can Help Enhance and Sustain Collaboration among Federal Agencies, GAO-06-15 (Washington, D.C.: Oct. 21, 2005).

 

Actions Needed

 

The federal government spends several billion dollars each year to help people with disabilities retain or obtain employment, a relatively small sum compared to the amount the government spends on providing cash benefits and other assistance to this population. Despite this federal investment, the unemployment rate among people with disabilities remains relatively high and very few Social Security disability beneficiaries earn enough to terminate federal cash assistance. While a low return-to-work rate among Social Security disability beneficiaries is not necessarily surprising, given that eligibility for the program is based on the inability to work, some beneficiaries can and do work. Even small shifts in the employment rate of disability beneficiaries could mean substantial savings to the federal government, which is particularly significant since the Social Security Administration’s Disability Insurance trust fund is expected to be exhausted by 2018. In this context, the number of programs providing similar employment services to people with disabilities raises questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of the current structure of federal disability programs. In its February 2011 high-risk update, GAO reported that an overall federal strategy and governmentwide coordination among programs is needed to align disability policies, services, and supports. At the same time, the GPRA Modernization Act of 2010 (GPRAMA) established a new, cross-cutting, and integrated framework for achieving results and improving government performance.[1] It requires the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to coordinate with agencies to establish outcome-oriented goals covering a limited number of crosscutting policy areas and to develop a governmentwide performance plan for making progress toward achieving those goals.

 

Consistent with that effort, to improve performance through greater coordination among the many federal programs that support employment for people with disabilities, OMB should

  • consider establishing measurable, governmentwide goals for employment of people with disabilities. Given the number of federal agencies and approaches involved in supporting employment for people with disabilities, governmentwide goals could help spur greater coordination and more efficient and economical service delivery in overlapping program areas. To determine whether these goals are being met, agencies should establish related measures and indicators and collect additional data to inform these measures.

Establishing governmentwide goals and measures for employment of people with disabilities is a critical first step in developing an overall federal strategy to align disability policy, services, and supports—a recommendation GAO first made to Congress in May 2008.

It is difficult to recommend specific areas for cost savings or streamlining because there are, at present, limited data available to determine which programs are achieving positive outcomes for people with disabilities in the most cost-effective way. Nevertheless, to achieve the greatest efficiency and effectiveness, OMB should

  • continue to work with executive agencies that administer overlapping programs to determine whether program consolidation might result in administrative savings and more effective and efficient delivery of services. Executive agencies should seek any necessary statutory authority to consolidate programs if there would be sufficient savings to merit such an action.


[1]Pub. L. No. 111-352, 124 Stat. 3866 (2011).

How GAO Conducted Its Work

 

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the products listed in the related GAO products section as well as additional work GAO conducted to be published as a separate product in 2012. GAO identified programs that support employment for people with disabilities by reviewing the Catalog of Federal Domestic Assistance and GAO’s prior work and consulting stakeholders. GAO included programs that served only people with disabilities, as well as programs that served a broader population but provided special consideration to people with disabilities or their employers.[1] GAO did not conduct an independent legal analysis to identify relevant programs. GAO validated this list of programs with agency officials and fielded a web-based survey to these programs from August 2011 to October 2011. GAO used the survey to collect information on programs’ objectives, eligibility criteria, services offered, and program obligations in fiscal year 2010, among other data. When programs were jointly administered by two or more federal agencies, GAO consulted with the agencies and asked them to designate one official to fill out the survey for that program. GAO incorporated data reliability checks into the survey instrument, reviewed documentation, and conducted follow-up interviews, as necessary. GAO followed up with some survey respondents based on electronic checks of data submissions and other criteria. GAO determined that the data used in this report were sufficiently reliable for the purposes of this report. GAO also interviewed researchers knowledgeable about employment and disability issues. See pages 375-377 of the PDF version of this report (appendix III) for a list of the programs GAO identified that may have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation may not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.



[1]Specifically, in order to be considered within GAO’s scope, agencies must have reported that their programs met at least one of the following criteria and provided an employment-related service in fiscal year 2010: (1) people with disabilities are mentioned in the legislation as a targeted group, (2) people are eligible for the program wholly because of a disability, (3) people are eligible for the program partially because of a disability, (4) people with disabilities are given special consideration in eligibility determinations, (5) people with disabilities are given priority in being served, or (6) employers of people with disabilities are a targeted group.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

 

GAO provided a draft of this report section to OMB and the nine federal agencies that administer the programs within the scope of this report for review and comment. The Departments of Education and Veterans’ Affairs (VA) had no comments. The Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Defense (DOD), Labor, Health and Human Services (HHS); the Internal Revenue Service; OMB; the Social Security Administration (SSA); and the U.S. AbilityOne Commission provided technical comments, which were incorporated or summarized and discussed below, as appropriate. Labor provided written comments. All written comments are reprinted in appendix IV of the PDF version of this report.

In response to GAO’s recommendations, OMB noted that, in fiscal year 2012, the Administration’s Domestic Policy Council will conduct an internal review of ways to improve the effectiveness of disability programs through better coordination and alignment of priorities and strategies. The Council will work with agencies to explore how they can achieve better results for people with disabilities through sharing data and defining shared objectives, among other activities. GAO supports such efforts to improve coordination among programs, and looks forward to the results of the review with respect to setting governmentwide goals for people with disabilities and identifying opportunities for more efficient and effective delivery of services to this population.

In addition, OMB noted that the current administration has set governmentwide goals for employment and inclusion of people with disabilities in the federal government. Specifically, in 2010, the President issued an executive order stating that the federal government should be a model for the employment of people with disabilities and reaffirming a goal set in 2000 to hire 100,000 individuals with disabilities over 5 years.[1] The President issued another executive order in 2011 that resulted in the Office of Personnel Management’s Government-wide Diversity and Inclusion Strategic Plan.[2]

OMB also highlighted some specific ongoing or planned efforts to improve employment for people with disabilities. For example, OMB noted that Labor issued a proposed rule to strengthen affirmative action requirements for federal contractors and subcontractors, and that SSA has set a goal of assisting 118,000 Disability Insurance and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) beneficiaries obtain employment in 2012 through the Ticket to Work program. In addition, OMB noted that the Promoting Readiness of Minors in SSI (PROMISE) program will involve several federal agencies to test interventions to improve outcomes—including employment outcomes—for children with disabilities and their families.

In their comments, both Labor and HHS expressed concern that GAO found fragmentation and/or duplication without providing a more detailed explanation of its findings. GAO did not find duplication, but rather, found fragmentation and overlap among programs providing employment support for people with disabilities that suggests the need to look more closely at the potential for unnecessary duplication. GAO stated that some programs have a greater potential for duplication than others, and provided some examples. GAO plans to issue a more detailed report on fragmentation, overlap, and the potential for duplication among programs that support employment for people with disabilities in 2012.

Labor asserted that GAO’s findings implied that one agency or program could address the needs of all people with disabilities. GAO agrees with Labor that people with disabilities have varied needs that may not adequately be served by one program alone. However, GAO still recommends that OMB and the agencies continue to work together to determine whether consolidating some overlapping programs might result in either cost savings or address service gaps through more efficient delivery of services. Labor also pointed out that several of the programs included in the scope of GAO’s study were not created specifically to provide employment support for people with disabilities, and that service inclusion and integration is consistent with disability civil rights laws. GAO agrees and included such programs to provide a more comprehensive picture of the services and supports available to help people with disabilities stay at work or return to work.

Four agencies—USDA, HHS, Labor, and SSA—highlighted unique characteristics of their programs, with respect to the actual services provided, program design used, and populations served. For example, USDA noted that the AgrAbility program is the only federally funded program that has developed expertise to accommodate disability among those working in agriculture. GAO revised the report to more clearly reflect program variation, as appropriate.

Labor questioned whether servicemembers and veterans should be considered similar populations. While there are obvious distinctions, GAO included programs serving these populations in one category because most DOD programs in the scope of this review reported facilitating the transition of servicemembers into veteran status. In addition, there are a number of programs that serve both servicemembers and veterans, such as Labor’s America’s Heroes at Work program and REALifelines program.

Two agencies commented on their programs’ outcomes related to employment. SSA pointed out that a low return-to-work rate among its disability beneficiaries does not necessarily raise questions about the efficiency and effectiveness of its disability program, and also noted that programs that support employment for people with disabilities have varying definitions of disability, which may affect the return-to-work objectives of any given program. In addition, USDA noted that most participants in its AgrAbility program were able to continue working, and that the program has demonstrated a high return on investment. GAO modified language and added some additional information to the report to address these points.

Finally, Labor provided examples of coordination within and among agencies that GAO did not identify through its survey. GAO made changes to the report, as appropriate, and plans to include additional information on coordination among selected programs in its 2012 report.

For additional information about this area, contact Daniel Bertoni at (202) 512-7215 or bertonid@gao.gov

 

Comments from Department of Labor

Comments from Department of Labor

Comments from Department of Labor



[1]Exec. Order No. 13,548, 75 Fed. Reg. 45,039 (July 30, 2010).

[2]Exec. Order No. 13,583, 76 Fed. Reg. 52,847 (Aug. 23, 2011).

Related Products

High-Risk Series: An Update
http://gao.gov/products/GAO-11-278

GAO-11-278: Published: Feb 16, 2011. Publicly Released: Feb 16, 2011.
Highlights of a Forum: Modernizing Federal Disability Policy
http://gao.gov/products/GAO-07-934SP

GAO-07-934SP: Published: Aug 3, 2007. Publicly Released: Aug 3, 2007.

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