What is the agency priority?
The Social Security Administration’s Ticket to Work (TTW) program is a federally funded program that provides employment services for people ages 18 through 64 who receive Social Security disability benefits and want to work. Employment service providers — Vocational Rehabilitation agencies and authorized Employment Networks — are paid through the program to offer support such as career counseling, job search assistance, and job training. SSA wanted to identify ways to encourage more eligible beneficiaries to participate in TTW.
What was the program change?
In collaboration with SSA, we conducted a behavioral diagnosis that identified several potential barriers to TTW participation. We produced a behavioral journey map that shows the steps taken by a TTW applicant, identifies potential behavioral barriers along the journey, and maps potential evidence-based interventions to address those barriers. Behavioral barriers that were identified included a fear of benefit loss and uncertainty about options.¹ To address these barriers, we designed several changes to the status quo TTW mailings.
For mailings sent after initial benefit award, and at its one-year anniversary, we:
- Revised the language used in the TTW notices
- Replaced an accompanying paper Ticket insert with a cardstock Ticket insert
For mailings sent at the two-year anniversary of initial benefit award, we:
- Added a mailing at this point in time, and included both the revised language notice and a cardstock Ticket
These changes simplify the information provided about TTW, lay out clearer action steps, highlight the benefits of TTW participation up front, emphasize that beneficiaries already qualify for this program, and encourage eligible beneficiaries to think of themselves as ready to work.²
How did the evaluation work?
We evaluated separate impacts of these changes on both Ticket assignments and calls to the TTW Helpline within the nine months after a beneficiary’s mailing was sent. We consider Helpline calls as a secondary outcome, speaking to whether our redesigned mailings increased information-seeking behavior. The study was conducted over 18 months, from September 2020 through February 2022. It’s worth noting that rollout occurred in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and we consider this in exploratory analyses referenced below.
For mailings sent after initial benefit award, and at its one-year anniversary, we assigned beneficiaries to one of four treatment groups, varying along two dimensions:
- Those who received a revised notice or an original notice
- Those who received a cardstock Ticket or a paper Ticket
For mailings sent at the two-year anniversary of initial benefit award:
- Those who received the cardstock Ticket and revised notice, or no mailing
We conducted separate analyses for mailings at each time point (initial award, one year anniversary, and two year anniversary), with a combined sample size of over 900,000 beneficiaries in total (roughly 300,000 in each analysis).
What did we learn?
Leveraging evidence-based insights to update the design of TTW outreach materials helped generate more Helpline calls (roughly 22 more calls per month at the time of award and one year later and roughly 70 more calls per month two years later), but that increase in calls did not appear to translate into an increase in Ticket assignments. Specifically, we find that sending the revised notice did not lead to a statistically significant change in the Ticket assignment rate after initial award or at the one-year anniversary, nor did sending TTW mailings accompanied by a cardstock Ticket rather than a paper Ticket. However, the revised notice increased the Helpline call rates in the first two mailings to a statistically significant degree. Similarly, the mailing at the two-year anniversary of award had a statistically insignificant effect on the Ticket assignment rate, but led to a statistically significant increase in the Helpline call rate . All outcomes were measured within a nine month follow-up period.
Figure 1. Redesigned mailings did not increase Ticket assignments, but had a small impact on Helpline calls
A pre-registered exploratory analysis suggests that sending a mailing two years after award increased Ticket assignments among those in counties with relatively high unemployment. Future research could explore in more detail how the economic impacts of public emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic impact the effectiveness of outreach programs, why people might call the Helpline but not take up the program, or the impacts of redesigned TTW mailings over longer timeframes.
- Mathematica. “Characteristics, Employment, and Sources of Support Among Working-Age SSI and DI Beneficiaries.” PDF file. April 2009.
- Office of Evaluation Sciences. “How to design effective communications: What has OES learned?” PDF file. November 2022., Bhargava, S., & Manoli, D. (2015). Psychological frictions and the incomplete take-up of social benefits: Evidence from an IRS field experiment. American Economic Review, 105(11), 3489-3529.
Verify the upload date of our analysis plan on on GitHub or also access the registration information for this project in the American Economic Association Registry for randomized control trials.