How Work Incentives Work

Artwork: Robin Mead

Social Security has work incentive programs to help people with disabilities work.

You can learn a bunch more about them in the Social Security website for work incentives.

Some people have good experiences using Work Incentives. Some people do not. Here’s what we’ve learned from folks who have tried it:


💮 There are several work incentive programs. For example: Vocational Rehabilitation, Ticket to Work, PASS Plans, and Trial Work Periods. These programs are designed to help you go off benefits.

💮 If you are well enough to go back to work and start to transition off disability benefits, these programs may be a great help.

💮 If you are not well enough to go off disability benefits, these programs may or may not be a good match.

💮 I have met some people who used Vocational Rehab, Ticket to Work and other work incentive programs. Sometimes this worked out well, other times people ran into problems during their next medical review.


💮 Ticket to Work programs are designed to help you go back to work and go off disability. They go by different names and may not be called “Ticket to Work.”

💮 In many of these programs, they expect you to either work or go to school a certain number of hours, and the number keeps increasing.

💮 To be honest I have never met anyone who had a good experience with Ticket to Work. I’m not saying it doesn’t work for anyone, I just haven’t met them. Everyone I have met so far could not keep up with the requirements and got kicked out of the program, and many went on to have problems with their medical reviews.

💮 Reviews of Vocational Rehab programs have been more mixed. Some people had great experiences and were able to get free job training and support. Other people wound up not getting a lot of help and/or having difficulties with their medical reviews.

💮 You may wish to learn about the pros and cons of these programs before making any decisions.


💮 PASS plans are designed to help you start a business or go back to work with the goal of going off disability benefits.

💮 If you are working and on SSI, Social Security will allow you to put your work income in a PASS. PASS plan stops your SSI check from being lowered, even if you earn income from working.

💮 If you are working and on SSDI, the Social Security regulations will allow you to put all of your work income plus all of your SSDI into a PASS plan, and then apply for SSI. If you qualify for SSI, Social Security will increase your disability payments up to the maximum SSI amount: an additional $735 per month. The Office of Inspector General did a report on this program last year and found that it was not very effective since many people were creating PASS plans and collecting extra benefits, but then not transitioning back to full-time work. The purpose of this program is to transition back to full-time work and go off disability benefits.


💮 IDA programs are designed to help you save money for a new business, first house or going to school.

💮 IDA programs can provide matching funds. I met one person who put in $500 and got back $2,000! She start a business selling her art and used the money to buy art supplies.

💮 If you are working and on SSI, Social Security will allow you to put your work income into an IDA. IDA plans may stop your SSI check from being lowered. Some IDA programs will stop your SSI check from being lowered and some will not. Please research carefully.


💮 If you are able to work and earn more than $1,170, Social Security will no longer consider you disabled and your disability check will discontinue.

💮 If you are on SSDI, you can have nine months of Trial Work Periods where you can earn more than this without your check ending. Trial Work Periods are very confusing. Please be careful. It is easy to misunderstand and think you are safe when you are not.

💮 Trial Work Periods do not protect you from medical reviews. You will still get medical reviews. You can still get cut off disability if your medical records are not strong or if the type of work you are doing indicates that your condition has improved.

💮 It is also easy to accidentally use more of your Trial Work Periods than you realize. Trial Work Periods begin any month where you earn more than $840, but they will not trigger problems unless you earn over $1,170. If you will ever earn over $1,170, even one month, contact Social Security and ask for written information on how many Trial Work Periods you have used.

💮 Trial Work Periods are for SSDI only. Not SSI.


💮 There are several good programs for people who are self-employed or running a small business.

💮 When determining the $1,170, Social Security will consider your income after business expenses.

💮 They may also look at a yearly average, if you receive money in a lump sum.

💮 If you receive assistance or help with your business, this may also lower the amount that is considered. Please see Social Security website for more info on work incentives for self employment.


💮 Above is a list of some of the more popular work incentive programs. To learn more and find out about other work incentives, see the Social Security work incentives  website.


If you want help navigating work incentives, you can try contacting a Centers for Independent Living in your area and ask if they can connect you with someone who can advise you on working and benefits. You can also get benefits counseling through Work Incentives Planning Assistance programs.


How to Handle Disability Reviews While Working

How to Work Without (Too Much) Trouble

How Wonderful and Horrible Work Incentives Can Be

How Does Working Affect My Disability Check?



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