Katie Savin: 0000-0001-8155-0749


Social Work


Background and Purpose: Disabled individuals, their families, and communities are more likely to live in poverty than their non-disabled counterparts. The Social Security Administration (SSA) is social safety net that provides cash assistance programs through social insurance (Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI) and public assistance (Supplemental Security Income, or SSI) programs to people who meet eligibility criteria. The SSA offers work incentive programs that encourage enrolled disabled people to return to the workforce yet has found that these programs are infrequently utilized. This research aims to fill both knowledge and methodological gaps in the literature on why those support mechanisms are under-utilized. Previous research has not yet investigated how disabled people make occupational and economic decisions and what barriers and strategies exist to survive within SSI/SSDI programmatic restrictions. Qualitative methods that uncover this decision-making by involving those impacted by the program can help to fill this gap in understanding. Methods: This study relies on data collected during semi-structured, in-depth interviews with a purposive sample of 13 self-identified disabled adults living in the Bay Area of California. Respondents were interviewed for approximately one hour each about their sources of income, budgeting strategies, and economic and occupational behavior. Subsequently, respondents met together in a focus group setting and were asked to speak to veracity of the researcher’s interpretations of the interview data. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed using the data analytical software Dedoose. Both deductive and inductive strategies were employed in this qualitative analysis. The themes that emerged from the transcribed interview data spanned multiple domains such as experiences of ableism, concrete strategies to make ends meet, and critiques of the SSI/SSDI program structures. This report focuses on the concrete strategies for survival and other work-related domains offered in response to the research questions aimed at filling gaps in the literature. Results: While only two respondents had participated in an SSA work incentive program, all study participants described a tremendous amount of routine labor ranging from 5-40 hours per week. Discussions of work revealed both nostalgia and reverence for the value of working. Types of work included side jobs that were unreported to the SSA such as house-cleaning for cash; work in underground economies such as sex work; taking buses and waiting in lines for hours to take advantage of a wide array of social services; and volunteer service and activist work. All but one participant discussed chronic and severe worries about having enough money to meet their basic needs and were often looking for extra sources of income or ways to make do with less. All participants described detailed rationales for their budgetary and work-related behavior as they interacted with perceived SSA policies. Conclusions and Implications: Collecting data that illuminates the behaviors of people on SSI/SSDI provided an empowering experience for interview participants, many of whom alluded to feeling “heard” and were eager to communicate with policy makers whose decisions impact their daily lives. Moreover, participants’ work lives showed that while they were not using the SSA work incentive programs, they were in fact working. These findings warrant further investigation in a wider sample and alternate geographic areas to assess for their generalizability to a wider cohort of beneficiaries. Further, they suggest that for this sample, incentives to work are far from lacking. Instead, recipients have communicated a call to expand the scope of recognized and acceptable work effort under SSA policies.

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Analyzing the Relationships Between Disability, Rehabilitation, and Work (ARDRAW) Small Grant Program of Public Research, Inc.