Bills Would Bring Income Support for Low-Income Seniors and People With Disabilities Into the 21st Century

August 18, 2014

Nearly 8.4 million poor and near-poor people in this country depend, at least in part, on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits to make ends meet. Most are people under 65 who have severe disabilities, but roughly 2.1 million are seniors.

SSI benefits are extremely low — currently a maximum of $721 a month for individuals and $1,082 for couples, when both spouses qualify. They’re the only source of income for more than half the people who receive them.

This is one, though probably not the only reason that the poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities is more than 16% higher than the rate for those without them.

It’s also probably one reason that nearly one in seven seniors lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s latest Supplemental Poverty Measure report.

Bills introduced in Congress would improve the financial circumstances of many SSI recipients — and in several ways. They’d also enable more low-income seniors and people with disabilities to qualify.

The maximum benefit would still inch up annually, based on increases in the consumer price index the Social Security Administration uses.

But the bills, as their title suggests, would restore SSI by updating and then indexing to a consumer price measure the dollar amounts of three provisions that haven’t been adjusted for a very long time — in two cases, not since the program was created in 1972.

The bills would also wholly eliminate a provision that may deter friends and family members from lending a helping hand — and penalizes beneficiaries when they do.

Further explanation of some pretty complicated stuff.

Exclusions. SSI benefits are adjusted down from the maximum based on two types of income SSI recipients may receive. But in both cases, the adjustments begin only if the income exceeds a certain amount. This is known as an exclusion.

One exclusion applies to income earned from work. At this point, it’s $65 a month — about nine hours at the federal minimum wage. Any earnings above the amount reduce benefits at a rate of 50 cents for every dollar earned.

The proposed Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act would immediately raise this exclusion to $357, nearly restoring the value it originally had.*

It would thus also restore the incentive to work, when possible. So it would, among other things, encourage recipients to see whether they could “graduate” from SSI by engaging in substantial gainful activity.

The second exclusion applies to certain other types of income, e.g., retirement benefits, interest on savings or some combination thereof. It’s currently $20 a month. Anything more reduces benefits on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The bills would initially raise this exclusion to $110.

Assets. To become — or remain — eligible for SSI, a senior or severely disabled person can have no more than $2,000 in savings or other resources that could readily be converted to cash, e.g., a life insurance policy, heirloom jewelry (unless the recipient wears it). The asset limit for couples is $3,000.

Neither limit has been adjusted since 1989, when dollars went a whole lot further than they do now.

The very low limits pose significant problems. From one perspective, they exclude people who genuinely need the benefits. From another, they keep SSI recipients from saving enough to cope with all but the most minimal emergencies.

As a benefits coordinator at Bread for the City notes, moving costs alone may exceed the limit. So it can keep recipients stuck in housing they can’t afford — or perhaps in supportive housing they no longer need.

She also notes the perverse incentive to spend down savings, even on things not needed — and also to rapidly spend down the lump sum back-payments the SSI program frequently makes because the approval process tends to be slow.

The bills would increase the asset limits to $10,000 for an individual and $15,000 for a couple. Then, as I said, they would annually rise to preserve their real-money value — just as the exclusions would.

In-Kind Support and Maintenance. Some very complicated rules apply when recipients don’t pay the full costs of their food and shelter, with or without SNAP (food stamp) benefits and housing assistance.

Even the Social Security Administration finds the rules “cumbersome to administer” — and both burdensome and intrusive for recipients.

Basically, SSI benefits are reduced, up to a third, when recipients live with someone else and don’t pay their full share of food and housing costs. Exceptions here if the someone else is a spouse or the recipient a minor-age child.

But when the child turns 18, the benefit cuts kick in — and they come on top of any cuts due to income exceeding the exclusions.

Benefits are also reduced if, for example, a friend or relative pays a utility bill — or buys some groceries when, as so often happens, SNAP benefits run out before the end of the month.

The SSI Restoration Act would repeal this part of the law — and with it, the unintended undermining of what we like to think of as America’s family values.

I don’t suppose I need to tell you that the bills are going nowhere in this Congress. But perhaps they’ll spur some movement toward reforming a good program that sorely needs revisions to bring it into the 21st century.

* The value would have been fully restored, with a little extra if Congress had passed the SSI Restoration Act last year, when it was introduced in the House. This is also true for the general income exclusion.

 


What’s a Poor Mother With No Childcare Subsidy to Do?

July 10, 2014

Perhaps you’ve read about Sanesha Taylor. She’s the Scottsdale, Arizona mother who left her baby and toddler in the car while she interviewed for a job.

Got arrested and put in jail. Lost custody of her children. Story picked up by a local TV channel and spread all over the internet. So no job, of course. And dimmer prospects because she’s already got a felony charge on her record — and could be convicted.

No one — least of all Sanesha — thinks it’s okay to leave your kids in a car unattended, especially on a hot day. But she was between the rock and the hard place because she needed that job and had no one to look after her children.

She had thought she would until the last minute, but the informal babysitting arrangements she’d relied on fell though. So she felt she had no choice but to blow off the interview — and the chance of a job that would pay more than enough to end her family’s homelessness — or to take the kids with her and leave them in the car.

This story would be altogether different — and we would never have read it — if she’d had affordable, high-quality child care. For her — and many, many other low-income parents — that means child care subsidized with public funds.

She once had a child care subsidy, but lost it when her employer cut her work hours — and then fired her when she took time off to prevent a miscarriage. Reportedly was offered a job elsewhere, but couldn’t take it because she couldn’t find child care.

Arizona isn’t the only state that terminates childcare subsidies when parents lose their jobs and don’t find another PDQ.

Witness for Hunger member Tangela Fedrick, who lives in Philadelphia, tells of a similar experience. Like Sanesha, she managed to piece together part-time childcare arrangements.

But, she says, her five-year-old son no longer has “a sense of stability and security.” And “he’s not learning anything,” the way he did when he was at a childcare center that gave him “instruction and pushed [him] to learn more.”

She worries that he won’t have the “tools” to help him “excel” when he starts grammar school — and that the months without high-quality child care “will always be a time of lost potential.”

In short, we have two major problems here: parents whose lack of reliable child care is an obstacle to getting a job and children who miss out on early learning experiences, which scads of research tell us provide lifelong benefits — both to them and our society.

The problems are obviously related because they’re both rooted in lack of money — for parents to afford high-quality child care without a subsidy and for state and local agencies to provide subsidies to all parents who need them.

Not only to provide them, but to reimburse providers at a rate that doesn’t cause them to limit the number of subsidized children they’ll accept and/or to skim on investments in quality, e.g., staff training.

To some extent, the money shortage reflects choices by state and local governments. In 2012, for example, three states cut spending on childcare assistance by more than 30%. All three — Georgia, North Dakota and South Carolina — also cut state taxes.

But the federal government is to blame as well. The Child Care and Development Block Grant, a.k.a. the Child Care and Development Fund, hasn’t kept pace with rising needs and costs.

Nor, as I’ve said over and over again, has the TANF block grant — another major federal funding source. Combining CCDBG with states’ uses of their federal TANF funds and funds they must spend to get those, childcare spending was lower in 2012 than in any year since 2002.

The multiple funding streams make it hard to put a figure on the total number of children served — and not. This much we know. The number of children served by CCDBG was the lowest since 1998 — only one in six eligible children.

That leaves more than 5.6 poor and near-poor preschoolers without child care subsidized by the largest federal source. And at least some older children with working parents need child care too.

In 2011, 13.6% of poor preschoolers whose mothers worked had no regular childcare arrangements — as of course, did some unknown percent whose mothers were actively seeking work. And this was when at least some states still had Recovery Act money for child care—and before sequestration had taken a bite out of CCDBG.

Tangela has a job now. She hopes this means she’ll get her childcare subsidy back. If she doesn’t she’ll probably still have to rely on her network of friends and relatives because center-based child care for her son would set her back somewhere around $8,600 for the year.

That’s 36.4% of the median income for Pennsylvania’s single-mother families. And its far from the costliest, whether measured in dollars or as percent of median income.

President Obama has proposed increases for CCDBG totaling $807 million, including $200 million states would have to use to support improvements in childcare quality. This would leave somewhat under $5.9 billion for subsidies.

The National Women’s Law Center says that “the additional funding would help maintain low-income families’ access to help paying for child care.”

Not, you’ll note, make subsidies available for anywhere near the number of low-income families that need them — and at reimbursement rates that would ensure access to high-quality care.

One would think that a program that supports both work and early learning could get more — or at least one would if one knew nothing at all about this Congress.


DC Budget Should Fund Help With Disability Benefits Applications

March 31, 2014

The Fair Budget Coalition recommends, among many things, a $3.9 million increase for the District of Columbia’s Interim Disability Assistance program — a temporary income supplement for low-income residents with severe disabilities.

The increase would bring local funding for IDA to somewhat over $5.9 million — a significant increase, but still less in real dollars than the program had in Fiscal Years 2009 and 2010.

It would be enough, Fair Budget says, to provide benefits — a modest $270 a month — to 1,200 more disabled residents while they wait … and wait for the Social Security Administration to render decisions on their applications for SSI (Supplemental Security Income).

If they’re successful, SSA pays their benefits retroactive to the day they applied, less what they received from the IDA program. That goes to the District, making the program partly self-sustaining.

The program could probably serve more residents with less local money if a larger number could obtain SSI benefits swiftly and/or the SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) benefits some are entitled to.

As it is, the process is complex and, more often than not, successful only after appeals — sometimes several stages thereof. This is when applicants have attorneys or other experts who know how to write, document and argue a claim.

Ms. I, for example, worked for many years cleaning offices, hospitals and nursing homes. She eventually suffered from a variety of serious ailments, plus side effects from the medications she had to take. She applied for SSI and SSDI in February 2009. Nearly two years passed before her application was approved.

But at least she got those benefits. Less than a third of SSI applications are initially approved. All but 10% ultimately are when applicants have attorneys to represent them in the appeals process, according to a pro bono attorney who spoke at an IDA briefing last fall.

But, of course, not all applicants do have attorneys. They’re hard put to gather the required proof that they’re not only income-eligible, but too disabled “to do any substantial gainful activity” for some considerable period of time.

They can easily miss one of the deadlines in the appeals process — especially, Fair Budget notes, if they’re homeless and so don’t have a mailbox to check every day.

Other applicants may also find the demands especially formidable, e.g., people unable to work because they’re developmentally disabled or suffering from a severe psychiatric disorder.

Special barriers aside, many prospectively eligible applicants decide at some point that they’ve just had enough of the time-consuming process — and the frustration.

As one who didn’t remarked at the briefing, “Either SSI is fickle or it’s set up to make people give up.” Perhaps both. Judges apply the complex regulations arbitrarily, said another of the pro bono attorneys.

A splendid example from Bread for the City, whose attorneys persuaded a judge to overturn a ruling which held that a father was demonstrably able to work because he could care for his son, with help from his family and the community.

Well, there’s nothing the District can do about the way the Social Security Administration conducts its business or the unpredictable proclivities of judges.

But they help explain why the District recovers, on average, only about 40% of the money it spends on IDA benefits — a reason Mayor Gray has taken a dim view of the program.

And they suggest that one of the items on his last wish list, i.e., funding priorities if revenues were higher than projected, should be put into the budget itself, as Fair Budget recommends.

I’m referring to funding for services to help residents apply for SSI. They’d then know, insofar as anyone can, what records they need to collect. Also, one hopes, how to describe their disabling condition(s) so as to ping the SSA checklist. They’d get help with appointments, Fair Budget suggests — and those who need it, a mailing address.

The investment should lead to more and quicker approvals, thus moving beneficiaries out of the IDA program to make way for others.

At the same time, more approvals would boost the reimbursement rate. So the District could tide over more SSI applicants without commensurate budget increases. It might, in fact, no longer have a waiting list, which undermines the whole point of interim assistance.

As things stand now, the Department of Human Services has capped IDA “customers” at 1,000 for this fiscal year. The DC Fiscal Policy Institute estimates that it will actually serve 825 — about 30% as many as it served in Fiscal Year 2009.

I need hardly add, I hope, that it would be a whole lot better for low-income residents with severe disabilities to receive SSI benefits, low as they are, than the $270 a month IDA provides. SSA might find some eligible for SSDI, which could be even better for them.

Fair Budget recommends $580,000 for SSI application assistance — about 60% of what the Mayor put on his wish list. The ask seems to me very small. But at least it would get the program started — without, one hopes, compromises in quality.

If it proves effective, as a particular model for homeless people has, then the District will have home-grown results justifying an increase.


More to Bad Jobs Than Low Hourly Pay

March 24, 2014

New York Times columnist Steven Greenhouse profiles a nurse’s aide and several other low-wage workers in Chattanooga, Tennessee to show why low-wage workers generally are “finding poverty harder to escape.”

One reason is simple enough. Their hourly pay rates are too low. All the profiled workers get somewhat more than the federal minimum, which applies in Tennessee and 28 other states — not, however, as much as the proposed $10.10 an hour. So the increase would help.

But low pay rates alone don’t account for the troubles the workers have paying for basic expenses. The nurse’s aide, for example, like a growing number of low-wage workers across the country, doesn’t have a regular work schedule, let alone a full-time job.

“For today’s low-wage, hourly workers, … scarce, unstable and unpredictable hours are the new norm,” write Professors Charlotte Alexander and Anna Haley-Lock.

Employers aren’t only cutting back on full-time jobs. Those that can are, in many cases, relying on “just-in-time” scheduling, i.e., adding and subtracting workers’ hours according to immediate need.

It’s reportedly common in restaurants and other retail businesses, which can now establish very short shifts — 15 minutes, in some cases — and use software to fill them, based on customer traffic, sales or predictors like weather conditions.

Workers may show up for what they think is a five-hour shift and be sent home early. They may be told they’ll need to put in extra hours — or to be available for them, with no guarantee they’ll be working.

They may have no regular hours at all, but instead have to call in daily — or be constantly accessible by phone. More commonly, their work days and/or hours change from week to week. And they don’t know what their schedule will be until a day or so before they’ve got to meet it.

“Even then,” said one chain restaurant worker, “it was only a guesstimate.”

Likewise, of course, the budget planning that low-income people are enjoined to practice. “I have been scheduled for as few as six hours in a week and as many as forty,” says a New York City sales associate. “How is anyone … supposed to plan a budget with such erratic schedules?”

And how is a parent supposed to manage childcare arrangements, when she’s sometimes needed, sometimes not, sometimes for far longer than scheduled — or at altogether different hours?

And how will she afford child care when a center may tack on a hefty fee for late pick-ups — or when her hours are suddenly, though perhaps (or perhaps not) temporarily cut in half?

Iffy schedules pose other problems for low-wage workers. For example, they can’t take on a second part-time job because they can’t commit to any work schedule, even if not another “just-in-time.”

They often can’t try to improve their prospects by getting more education or specialized training because they never know when or how often their work schedule will conflict with their classes.

The surges and plunges in working hours also wreak havoc on eligibility for many public benefits and the support they provide because recipients generally have to recertify, i.e., periodically reapply.

A woman in Massachusetts says, “A good month, I can work thirty-eight to forty-five hours and it just happens to be that month they want my pay stubs for food stamps. OK, the next month comes around I’ve worked three hours one week, twelve hours another week … They don’t want my pay stubs for that month.”

So she could lose at least part of her food stamp benefit — and then have to try to recover it. Temporary hours spikes can also jeopardize childcare subsidies, WIC, housing assistance and Medicaid.

On the other hand, earnings plunges make it even more difficult for low-wage workers to qualify for unemployment benefits. Yet they’re at high risk for unemployment — in part because they’re expected to work whenever.

Finally, as many have written, the on-again, off-again, never-know-when schedules create high levels of stress for workers. They’re also harmfully stressful for their children, whose daily routines and caregivers constantly change.

CLASP and partners have identified two policies that some employers have adopted to mitigate the problems of unstable schedules for low-wage workers.

One, also favored by Professors Alexander and Haley-Lock, guarantees workers who’ve reported when told to a certain number of hours of pay.

Seven states and the District of Columbia actually have so-called “reporting pay” laws, but they vary considerable in whom they cover, the number of hours guaranteed and the required pay rate.

These laws may be on the books, but it’s doubtful they’re consistently enforced, since they hinge on vulnerable workers filing complaints. And, of course, they do nothing about schedules that constantly change.

Nor does the other policy, though it comes closer. It guarantees workers a set number of hours a week — or pay for those hours if there’s not enough work for them to do. Costco, among others (probably not very many), has a version of this policy.

There’s a business case to be made for a work guarantee. It can help reduce turnover, for example, and increase productivity — not only because workers know their jobs, but because they want to do them well.

But, as the CLASP report says, “relying solely on voluntary employer action will not suffice.” We’ll need new and/or revised laws and regulations to make bad jobs better in the rapidly-growing low-wage service sectors.


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