Vocational Rehabilitation:

Improved Information and Practices May Enhance State Agency Earnings Outcomes for SSA Beneficiaries

GAO-07-521: Published: May 23, 2007. Publicly Released: May 23, 2007.

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State vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies, under the Department of Education (Education), play a crucial role in helping individuals with disabilities prepare for and obtain employment, including individuals receiving disability benefits from the Social Security Administration (SSA). In a prior report (GAO-05-865), GAO found that state VR agencies varied in the rates of employment achieved for SSA beneficiaries. To help understand this variation, this report analyzed SSA and Education data and surveyed state agencies to determine the extent to which (1) agencies varied in earnings outcomes over time; (2) differences in state economic conditions, client demographic traits, and agency strategies could account for agency performance; and (3) Education's data could be used to identify factors that account for differences in individual earnings outcomes.

Our analysis of data on state agency outcomes for SSA beneficiaries completing VR found that state agencies varied widely across different outcome measures for the years of our review. For example, from 2001 to 2003 average annual earnings levels among those SSA beneficiaries with earnings during the year after completing VR varied across state agencies from about $1,500 to nearly $17,000. After controlling for a range of factors, we found that much of the differences in state agency earnings outcomes could be explained by state economic conditions and the characteristics of the agencies' clientele. Together state unemployment rates and per capita income levels accounted for roughly one-third of the differences between state agencies in the proportion of SSA beneficiaries that had earnings during the year after VR. The demographic profile of SSA clients being served at an agency--such as the proportion of women beneficiaries--also accounted for some of the variation in earnings outcomes. We also found that after controlling for other factors, a few agency practices appeared to yield positive earnings results. For example, state agencies with a higher proportion of state-certified counselors had more SSA beneficiaries with earnings during the year after completing VR. However, we were unable to determine what factors might account for differences in earnings outcomes at the individual level. This was due in part to Education's data, which lacked information on important factors that research has linked to work outcomes, such as detailed data on the severity of clients' disabilities. Although Education collects extensive client-level data, some key data are self-reported and not always verified by state agencies.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education has taken several steps to promote promising practices for helping SSA disability beneficiaries participate in the workforce, particularly with the goal of partnering with the business community and collaborating with agencies that provide complementary services. Specifically, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) recently completed four regional forums specifically designed to connect vocational rehabilitation (VR) personnel with employers. Presentations on effective practices were captured on a CD that was distributed to all VR agencies for training purposes. In addition, RSA has worked with the Council of State Administrators of VR (CSAVR) to support "the NET," an online tool and database that allows VR agency business development personnel to connect with each other and with employers to share job openings, technical assistance, accommodations practices, and tools. On the promotion of promising practices for agency collaboration, the Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services (OSERS), RSA, the VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Service (VR&E) and the Department of Labor Veterans' Employment and Training (DOL VETS) programs developed and issued a document through the RSA Institute on Rehabilitation Issues on how state VR agencies, the VA VR&E and the DOL VETS programs, among others, can partner on behalf of the veteran or service member with a disability. A memorandum of understanding is being developed between RSA and VA VR&E to provide technical assistance and cross training in support of state VR and VA VR&E partnerships in local areas. Further, OSERS, RSA, Department of Labor and other federal agencies continue to convene and support the work of the Federal Interagency Transition Work group in order to assist youth with disabilities in their transition from school to the workforce. This Workgroup has disseminated a range of products and hosted several activities, such as developing technical assistance guides, hosting conferences and recently assisted in the conduct of a Federal hiring job fair. Currently, the Federal Interagency Transition Workgroup is developing a selective hiring fact sheet to assist youth in obtaining federal employment. As part of its efforts to address this recommendation, Education is continuing to draft and revise processes supporting these activities.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of Education's program evaluation efforts and ultimately the management of vocational rehabilitation programs, the Secretary of Education should further promote agency practices that show promise for helping more SSA disability beneficiaries participate in the workforce. Such a strategy should seek to increase: (1) the percentage of VR staff who meet state standards and certifications established under the CSPD, (2) partnership or involvement with area business communities, and (3) collaboration with other agencies that provide complementary services.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education has taken steps to reassess its data collection efforts including by consulting with outside experts and partnering with other federal agencies to (1) improve the quality of its data and (2) collect and verify earnings history data. Specifically, the Rehabilitation Services Administration (RSA) convened meetings of experts, including State Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) Directors and data collection and data quality experts, to revise the primary data collection forms, the RSA-911 and RSA-2 forms. As a result, they are currently revising the forms to elicit more accurate information and are incorporating data edits to validate the information provided on the form. Further, through memorandums of understanding, RSA is working with SSA and the IRS to match administrative files so that data on clients' earnings histories can be obtained and verified. As part of its efforts to address this recommendation, Education is continuing to draft and revise processes supporting these activities.

    Recommendation: To improve the effectiveness of Education's program evaluation efforts and ultimately the management of vocational rehabilitation programs, the Secretary of Education should reassess Education's collection of VR client data through consultation with outside experts in vocational rehabilitation and the state agencies. In particular, it should: (1) consider the importance of data elements that are self-reported by the client and explore cost-effective approaches for verifying these data, and (2) consider collecting additional data that may be related to work outcomes, such as more detailed data on the severity of the client's disability and past earnings history, collaborating whenever possible with other state and federal agencies to collect this information.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

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