How Disabled Individuals Are Pushing to Overhaul a Key Advantages Program

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When Congress introduced Supplemental Security Income in 1972, it left no doubt as to its intentions. The program, as the legislators wrote, was “designed to give a positive assurance that the old, blind and disabled people of the country no longer have to live on an income below the poverty line”.

Today it helps ensure the opposite.

The maximum annual benefit is $ 9,528, three-quarters of the state poverty line. Payments decrease when recipients have more than $ 85 in foreign income per month and are withdrawn when they exceed $ 2,000 in savings. There are penalties for accepting food or even housing loved ones. The result is that it is structurally difficult to obtain SSI and not to live in poverty.

The postponement came over nearly five decades during which Congress made no material changes to the program, which is run by the Social Security Agency and serves about eight million Americans. The external income limits, for example, have never been adjusted for inflation.

Now that the Democrats are working out the details of trillions of dollars in spending they want to bring in without Republican support through budget balancing, SSI beneficiaries and supporters see a rare opportunity to revise the program.

It is far from a guarantee. This Wednesday, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, said she would not support her party’s proposed $ 3.5 trillion package – and because her support and that of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, What remains in the package depends on what you are willing to accept.

Republicans and some moderate Democrats oppose passing a package that would significantly increase the deficit, and if it needs to be reduced to win 50 votes, a myriad of proposals – on education, health care, climate change and more – will compete for the recording.

But “there is a chance,” said Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, in a virtual forum with supporters last week, calling the state of the SSI program “a national scandal” and calling on supporters to contact the White House and to call the leaders of Congress “every single day.”

Mr Bowman is a major sponsor of the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act, which advocates are seeking to incorporate into the Reconciliation Act, which the Chief Social Security Actuary estimates would cost $ 46 billion in 2022 and $ 510 billion over the next decade. Among other things, it would raise SSI payments to the federal poverty line and index them to inflation; allow more than $ 500 per month in external income with no penalty; Wealth Limit Raised to $ 10,000; and remove penalties for in-kind assistance, such as a friend who offers shelter.

In some ways, the bill is just another example of a measure that stopped being a non-starter when the Democrats took control. But it is also the result of years of work by people with disabilities trying to establish themselves as a bloc capable of influencing elections and making demands on elected officials.

“We agitated from within, but it was outside groups that really got it on the mainstream Democratic agenda,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio who is the Senate chief senator for SSI law and has been for years Similar laws endorsed alongside Rep. Raúl Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat, and others. “They were less active than a Republican Senate and a President like Trump because they knew there wasn’t much at the end of the rainbow.”

Last month, advocacy groups helped organize the first two-chamber briefing on SSI – essentially a presentation to congress staff – for more than 30 years. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont included SSI changes in a draft list of Democratic priorities. Mr Bowman said he had spoken to White House officials and that “all signs indicate support for the President”.

The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment, but President Biden campaigned for changes to SSI without which “I don’t think what we saw on the hill would have been possible,” said Matthew Cortland, senior Fellow at Data for Progress and leading a campaign called #DemolishDisabledPoverty, which includes the SSI push.

Other factors could include the oversized impact of the pandemic on disabled and aging Americans and increasing collaboration between these groups.

Rebecca Vallas, Senior Fellow at Century Foundation and director of #DemolishDisabledPoverty, called the current effort “the logical next step from what we saw in 2017 and 2018 when the disabled community and the senior community came together to fight in lockstep.” to protect the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. “

A Century Foundation / Data for Progress poll in May found bipartisan support for raising SSI payments to the poverty line: 91 percent among Democrats and 70 percent among Republicans, with an error rate of plus or minus three percentage points.

The Republican legislature has remained largely silent on the SSI proposal, despite its strong opposition to the general law of reconciliation.

Jeffrey Miron, an economist at the Libertarian Cato Institute and Harvard, said the measure was “completely rational in view of the goals” and the main focus of the ideological controversy was the goals themselves. He added that SSI was not a major contributor to the deficit.

“If you think inadequately generous programs are a problem, increasing benefits actually solves the problem,” said Miron. “Whether it’s overall good, and whether a wide range of people would agree that we should make the programs more generous, is a much tougher question.”

Aside from organizers such as Ms. Vallas and Mr. Cortland, themselves former SSI recipients, current beneficiaries have started talking about how the program’s limitations are affecting them.

Felix Guzman, an SSI recipient with autism and schizoaffective disorder, said higher payments could cover speech therapy or communication devices for his 7-year-old son, who is autistic and non-verbal.

“The difference between a month or two months spent on an article that could help him communicate can make the difference in whether or not he hits a disability milestone,” said Guzman, 39 ,.

Other recipients say they are unable to do meaningful work because it could cost their SSI and accompanying Medicaid coverage without providing enough income or insurance to compensate. Some want to test their ability to keep a job, but they don’t want to risk having nothing to fall back on if they can’t.

“It can be very difficult to get your SSI or Medicaid back if you lose these benefits,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, the director of the Disability Initiative at the Center for American Progress, who uses a wheelchair and relies on SSI in the University. “Balancing your health needs with your willingness and ability to work is a real trap.”

The program can also discourage marriage, as one spouse’s assets – even a few thousand dollars in a retirement account – would count towards the couple’s $ 3,000 wealth limit.

“The amount of benefits we lose is thousands – a normal spouse can’t afford that,” said a disabled SSI recipient, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation for breaking the program’s rules offends on which she relies. “Most of us, including me, don’t get married because I was literally going to die. I would lose everything. “

Once, this recipient said she was too sick to leave home for two months, and as her daily expenses fell, her account balance went from just under $ 2,000 to $ 2,135 without her realizing it. When the Social Security Agency found out about this, they had to repay all of their SSI benefit for those months, which lasted two years.

The organizers of #DemolishDisabledPoverty also want Congress to increase funding for home and community-based services; Abolition of a law allowing companies to pay some disabled workers far less than the minimum wage; and update Social Security Disability Insurance or SSDI which is different from SSI but has many similar limitations.

Melanie Waldman, 30, who has lupus, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and an amputated arm, has been unemployed since she left a job that, she said, “destroyed my body”. She receives about $ 800 a month from SSDI

She has a background in theater and said she wanted to pursue roles but should ask for lower pay. She is allowed to make $ 10,000 a year in external income and, prior to joining SSDI, earned about $ 13,000 from acting. Although SSDI pays less, she cannot afford to lose it as it would mean loss of health care.

Mr Cortland said the current push has been focused on SSI as it can be changed by budget reconciliation while SSDI cannot. But he stressed on the virtual forum last week that proponents would also be working to change SSDI

The forum, organized by the Century Foundation, was attended by Mr. Bowman and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, who both urged the 17,000 or so audience to put pressure on lawmakers.

“I know I preach to the choir, and as the granddaughter of a Baptist minister there is a reason for that,” Ms. Pressley said. “Because I need the choir to sing.”

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