This article examines Youth Works' (a Youth Transition Demonstration) implementation and outcomes to provide a potential case study for other states interested in expanding services to youths with disabilities. The Youth Works enrollees reported increases in the use of employment services, in employment, and in income in the year after random assignment into the treatment group, and the effects were large relative to those of previous Social Security Administration (SSA) demonstrations.

Policymakers increasingly look for options to improve the prospects of youths with disabilities, who face several potential barriers to making a successful transition to adulthood and independence, especially if they receive cash benefits from the Social Security disability programs. For example, young beneficiaries do not fare as well as youths without disabilities in terms of labor market outcomes (Loprest and Wittenburg 2007).

In recognition of these challenges, several state and federal agencies have initiated demonstration projects that aim to improve services and outcomes for transition-age youths; that is, those aged 14–25. Legislatively, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA, Public Law 113-128) emphasize improving services and outcomes for transition-age youths, including requiring state vocational rehabilitation (VR) agencies to adequately prioritize services to youths with disabilities.

In 2003, the Social Security Administration (SSA) initiated the Youth Transition Demonstration (YTD) to assess various options for supporting youths with disabilities who received or were at risk of receiving Social Security disability benefits. The YTD included an evaluation that compared results for randomly assigned treatment and control groups at six project sites in different geographic regions. The evaluation’s project sites varied substantially in their participant composition and the availability of existing supports.

This article summarizes findings on one of the six projects, West Virginia Youth Works, from interim and final YTD evaluation reports (Fraker and others 2012, 2014).

Major Findings & Recommendations

An important implementation lesson from the Youth Works experience was to use statistical benchmarks to reinforce project goals. Youth Works’ focus on employment was emphasized in the technical assistance delivered to the project. In qualitative interviews, both staff members and youths expressed strong support for explicit goals that clarify the project’s purpose. The benchmarks also supported front-line staff, as the technical assistance provider (TransCen) was able to link outcomes such as employment to the number of service hours provided. The findings also indicate the potential implications of providing extensive short-term supports, in that substantial year-1 outcomes had diminished by year 3. Specifically, Youth Works had positive effects on the prevalence of paid employment during years 1 and 3, but effects on earnings did not persist into year 3. Youth Works also increased the youths’ total income (through the YTD waivers’ effects on benefits) and participation in productive activities. The promising 1-year results reflect the extensive, yet short-term, Youth Works service model’s emphasis on employment—as well as the comparatively poor outcomes of the control group. However, the dissipation in effects by year 3 indicates that the intervention was less successful in influencing long-term outcomes, which may reflect the fact that Youth Works participants’ eligibility for services was capped at 18 months. In summary, the findings from Youth Works illustrate the potential advantages of developing and implementing a statewide employment-focused intervention to improve short-term outcomes for the child and young-adult SSI recipients. Other states could presumably test a similar service-delivery model if they could develop a strong network of providers with staff who are able to implement extensive customized employment services with clear benchmarks. Despite some promising findings, the short duration of services (18 months) might have contributed to a general decline in effects from year 1 to year 3.