“It’s the greatest professional disappointment of my career,” Bruce Growick told me recently without a trace of doubt in his voice. The former president of the International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals was referring to the Ticket to Work program, a 1999 outgrowth of Social Security Disability Insurance that was intended to funnel the nation’s growing ranks of injured workers back into the workforce. In the 90s, Growick testified before the committees that would draft Ticket to Work and met with lawmakers to help shape it. Years before he became skeptical of its effectiveness, he was optimistic about what it might do for disabled individuals.
“Having a job is so much better than being paid to stay at home,” he says. In his testimony, Growick said, “The role of government should be to assist and encourage persons with disabilities towards employment.”
Getting even 5 percent more disability beneficiaries back to work would save the government billions of dollars in benefits payouts. Ticket to Work’s mission was to accomplish just that. Under the program, most disability beneficiaries are sent “tickets,” which they can take to local “employment networks,” or ENs—businesses or organizations that help the ticket-holders with their job searches without collecting any fees up front. If the person finds and keeps a job, the EN would be paid for their services by the Social Security Administration. The ticket-holders could keep their disability benefits and their health insurance while they were looking for work, or if they didn’t find it. Participation in the program was, and remains, completely voluntary.