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