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Improving Economic Outcomes for Children with Disabilities and their Families: Preliminary Findings from the PROMISE Project

By Carolann Murphy, PA

Achieving independence is a complicated pathway for youth with disabilities, a group that has low graduation rates and difficulties transitioning to postsecondary education and the workforce. This is true especially for recipients of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), who reach a crossroads at age 18 when their future eligibility is redetermined using adult criteria for gainful employment. More than 60% qualify for SSI as adults, leading to widespread long-term dependence on SSI, and contributing to the high poverty rates in this population.           

To improve socioeconomic outcomes among these high-risk youth and their families, a five-year, $236 million randomized controlled trial was launched in 2013, called PROMISE – Promoting Readiness of Minors in Supplemental Security Income Project”. PROMISE, which enrolled 13,444 participants in six model demonstration projects covering 11 states, was funded through a federal agency partnership of the US Department of Education, the Social Security Administration, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the US Department of Labor. Centered on 14-16 year olds, PROMISE implemented culturally responsive and experimental interventions for transitioning youth, as well as family members, a dual-generation approach aimed at increasing transition to higher education and competitive integrated employment. Participants were randomized to either the treatment group (enhanced interventions), or the control group (traditional services).

Essential elements of the intervention included the provision of case management, work experiences, information and training for parents, and counseling that included benefits planning, financial literacy, and career services. Each project developed partnerships with state agencies and community organizations, and had access to a dedicated technical assistance center (PROMISE TA Center)* for support including professional development for stakeholders. 

Preliminary outcomes for PROMISE show improvement in employment with the intervention model compared with traditional services. “Grounding this comprehensive service model in the dual-generation approach established the basis for success,” said John O’Neill, PhD, director of the Center for Employment and Disability Research at Kessler Foundation. “Many of these young people and their families have the capacity to improve their economic status through engagement in the workforce. Planning for transition needs to begin early, so families are aware of options beyond SSI that will help their children live as independently as possible,” he emphasized.

Challenges arose during the implementation of the intervention model, according to experts at the PROMISE TA Center. They identified the need to support comprehensive case management services, including basic needs such as housing and health care, which were not a part of the PROMISE intervention. “A liaison capable of sustained outreach across partnering organizations and agencies was identified as having a positive impact on the success of the PROMISE model,” said Kelly Nye-Lengerman, PhD, research associate at the Institute on Community Integration at the University of Minnesota.

To facilitate early intervention, they saw the need for special education staff to be aware of their students’ SSI status and knowledgeable of the availability of work incentives. This would help teachers and counselors intervene in time to raise families’ expectations for their children’s futures, raise awareness of the importance of early work experiences, and allay concerns about loss of benefits. “Dedicating a navigator to engage with families would be a valuable addition,” added Dr. Nye-Lengerman. “Having access to a professional to provide information and coordinate work-based learning experiences across systems would foster students’ participation in work-related opportunities.”   

While much remains to be learned from the PROMISE trial, preliminary data are encouraging, according to experts at Mathematica Policy Research and the PROMISE TA Center who are analyzing the results. “Outcomes for young recipients of SSI will improve through family engagement and person-centered services delivered in an environment where services are coordinated and systems collaboration is supported,” Dr. O’Neill concluded.     

This blogpost is based on the March 6, 2020 National Trends in Disability Employment report and webinar.  

*The TA Center, funded through grant H418T140002 from the Office of Special Education Programs to the Association of University Centers for Disability (AUCD), is a collaborative project of AUCD, Institute on Community Integration, and the University of Minnesota's UCEDD.