bread for the city

Meet SSI, The Most Important Government Program You’ve Never Heard Of


There are reasons to both love and hate SSI, one of the nation’s most vital public assistance programs for people with disabilities.

NPR provoked a firestorm late last month when they reported that Social Security disability benefits have become “our extremely expensive default plan” for dealing with our economy’s declining capacity to generate well-paying jobs. According to reporter Chana Joffe-Walt, disability insurance is the last resort for many Americans who can’t find work.

But there’s a whole population of people who don’t even qualify for what we know as “disability,” due to their lack of recent work history. For many of them, a program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is the only safeguard against abject poverty.

While Joffe-Walt reported on the rising number of disabled children whose families rely on SSI, the program is actually a vital source of income for eight million Americans of all ages with severe disabilities. However, SSI is also an illuminating and unflattering reflection on how America treats its most vulnerable.

For some insight, I spoke with Ashley Moore, public benefits social worker and co-worker of mine at Bread for the City in Washington, DC.

SSI is “basically one of the only welfare programs that we do have for people either disabled or elderly or blind, and who have little to no income and low assets,” Moore said. Recipients get a maximum of $710 per month, well below the federal government’s own poverty line of $958 per month for an individual.

“Seven hundred and ten dollars doesn’t get you very far at all, especially in DC,” Moore said. “A lot of clients I work with live in a shelter.”

That $710 also comes with an arduous set of strings attached, designed to ensure that only folks who desperately need the money collect benefits. Finding other sources of income, getting help with living expenses, or accumulating savings all result in cuts to a person’s SSI.

The restrictions make sense from a budget perspective, but the result is “we’ve built this underclass system where you’re stuck at that level always, and there’s no way to get out of it,” Moore said. SSI benefits are enough to prevent people from dying, but not enough to free them from the hardship brought by poverty.

A decade of increasing child poverty has seen a substantial increase in children who rely on SSI. As America’s social safety net becomes more porous, programs like SSI make up an increasingly important part of the patchwork.

“I spend most of my week trying to help people get this benefit,” Moore said. “I don’t know what people would do without it, but it’s not even close to enough.”

Posted at Campus Progress. Photo: Flickr / Rachel Groves

DCHA To Close Its Waiting List for Public Housing

Attention, DC residents in need of public housing: 2012 might be your last chance to get on the DC Housing Authority’s waiting list. By the end of this year, DCHA will indefinitely close its waiting list for public housing, Executive Director Adrianne Todman has told BFTC staff.

The list is a fact of life for many District residents. Thousands sign up every year, joining the 64,000 people already in a holding pattern, waiting for a chance at subsidized housing in their ever more expensive home city. Based on current trends, about 10,000 residents would likely sign up in 2013. The 64,000 folks already on the list (that’s one in ten Washingtonians) are vying for one of about 8,000 public housing units or 12,000 government-subsidized vouchers.

So, it’s a long wait. DCHA is currently pulling names that have been on the list since 2003, and those added to the list today can expect to wait a whopping 46 years for a studio or efficiency apartment.

Despite the bleak prospects for actually obtaining housing, we at BFTC have long pushed for the list to stay open. “Keeping the list open demonstrates the crushing need for low-income housing in this city,” said Vytas Vergeer, director of our legal clinic.

Continued at Bread for the City.

The P Word


Over at the blog of my august employer, Taqua Thrasher calls on President Obama and candidate Romney to talk more about poverty:

By now you’ve heard the statistics: 1 in 6 Americans living at or near the poverty line, 45 to 50 million Americans using Food Stamps, 30 to 50 million Americans without healthcare (prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act), and on and on and on.

These numbers are a devastating indictment of the character, the will, and the policies of this nation. A deeper examination of them reveals that 25% of our children (1 in 4) live in poverty; that places us second in the world among developed nations.

We are issuing a challenge to the two men vying for the title President of the United States. […] Say the word ‘poverty’ in your nationally televised convention acceptance speech, and make eradicating it your top policy priority.

But why is “poverty” such political poison? Why do politicians talk as though it’s the middle class that truly has it rough?

A few weeks ago, a friend and I took an exploratory shot at an answer. Some threads we came up with:

  • We do not think highly of poor folks. There are strong currents of thought, both explicit and implicit, that blame impoverished Americans for their own suffering. Meanwhile, we associate middle class status with virtue, hard work, and self-reliance.
  • People living in poverty are less likely to vote; they don’t represent a valuable political constituency and it’s unproductive for politicians to address their concerns.
  • Even if they do vote, almost all poor people identify as “middle class.”
  • Poverty has no place in our national identity. We are supposed to be a beacon of prosperity shining out into the world, so a 25 percent child poverty rate causes us some pretty unpleasant cognitive dissonance. And cognitive dissonance does not make good politics.

There is probably more to the story, and I’m sure I’m not the first to raise this question. If you’ve seen others address it please send their work my way.

Photo: A squatter’s bed in a shuttered Detroit auto plant. 2008.

Making Cents: Rep Payee Clients Tackle Financial Literacy

From my day job:

Have you ever seen an $800 gas bill? Michael Jones has. A year ago, this DC resident was having trouble getting his bills paid, and the gas and electricity in his apartment had been cut off. He came to our Representative Payee Program for help.

“I came to this program because I wasn’t managing my money correctly,” Jones said. “I had my electric cut off because I wasn’t paying that, my gas cut off because I wasn’t paying that. I was back on my portion of the rent that I had to pay. I just wasn’t showing responsibility.”

Read the rest at Bread for the City.

Social Security Benefits Have Increased: But It’s Not Enough

Posted at breadforthecity.org:

We’ve got good news for many Bread for the City clients: as of the new year, recipients of Social Security are receiving slightly larger checks each month. This is the Social Security Administration’s first “Cost of Living Adjustment” since 2009.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a common federal disability benefit that over five million Americans rely upon to survive. For recipients of SSI, this ‘COLA’ increase amounts to a $24 bump in monthly income, from $674 to $698 — a total increase of $288 for the year.

It’s a modest increase, but for our clients who receive Social Security benefits, it does make a difference.

Continued here.