Well, you’ve got to hand it to House Republicans. Takes guts to go after poor children with disabilities. But that’s apparently what they have in mind.
The budget resolution they recently passed would cut funding for the Supplemental Security Income program by $3.5 billion over the next 10 years. These savings would be achieved by reducing benefits to families with more than one child enrolled in SSI.
And adding insult to injury, the Budget Committee’s report falsely claims that advocates have, in the past, supported such a proposal.
Some Basic Facts and Figures
SSI provides modest cash benefits to low-income people who are elderly, blind or otherwise severely disabled. For adults this means, among other things, “unable to do any substantial gainful activity.”
Children, of course, can’t do substantial gainful activities — unless their parents find work for them as models or actors. So the SSI standard for them is different.
They must have “a medically determinable” physical or mental disability that “result[s] in marked and severe functional limitations.” Only disabilities expected to last at least a year or to be fatal count.
Children meeting this standard can receive SSI benefits only if their families have less than $3,000 in resources, except for certain specified assets, e.g., a car, a home, a burial plot.
Benefits are modest — a maximum of $698 a month this year. Most children get less.
The benefits partly offset the additional costs parents incur when their children are severely disabled, e.g., lost income because a parent has to stay home or work less to provide care, transportation to and from doctors and therapists, out-of-pocket expenses for aids, special foods and the like.
Note the “partly” here. A recent research review found that direct and indirect costs of raising disabled children averaged $10,830 — $3,440 less than the average income support SSI provides. And not all families included in the cost average had children with disabilities severe enough to qualify for SSI.
Not surprisingly then, more than a third of children with SSI benefits live in families below the poverty line. Many more live in families that experience material hardships, e.g., food insecurity, utility cut-offs, inability to keep up with the rent.
House Budget Committee Proposal
The House Budget Committee justifies the proposed SSI cut on the basis of the benefits model “typically” used by other “welfare” programs.
Some indeed, as its report says, provide benefits on a sliding scale. The scale often weights benefits toward the neediest.
But household size is sometimes a factor. For example, the maximum food stamp benefit for a family of four is less than four times the maximum benefit for a single individual.
This makes some sense, as we shoppers know. A gallon of milk costs less per ounce than a pint.
It’s absurd to think that a parent who has two or more children with disabilities could achieve some comparable economies of scale.
Last time I checked, pharmacies don’t give discounts if a parent fills prescriptions for more than one child. Nor do the day care centers that provide the intensive, specialized care that children with severe disabilities need.
Perhaps the House Budget majority thinks parents can achieve efficiencies — for example, rotate use of a wheelchair between two children with mobility impairments.
Set aside for a moment the effects on the kids. The idea itself implies that all disabled children in a family have identical needs. You don’t have to be an expert to know this is wrong, even when the children have disabilities with the same clinical name.
More likely, the Republican majority is going after SSI because it’s “welfare.” Not only that, but an entitlement — the worst kind of federal spending, if it aids low-income people.
False Claim of Support
What’s truly beyond the pale is the Committee’s claim that advocates have supported a sliding scale. To exemplify, it cites a remark Jonathan Stein made during a 1995 hearing.
Stein, General Counsel at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, allowed as how there should be some sort of cap or sliding scale of benefits “for very large families” — this in response to a hypothetical about a family with eight disabled children.
To rope him and his organization into the current proposal is fundamentally — and knowingly — dishonest.
Maybe the best the Committee could do because it’s hard to justify the cut otherwise.
NOTE: I am deeply indebted to Rebecca Vallas, another attorney at CLS, for helping me get up to speed on this issue. What I’ve written reflects some of the many documents she shared and her answers to my many questions. The political analysis (and any errors) are entirely my own.