Budget Cap Will Cap Dad’s and Daughter’s Futures

October 19, 2015

I first met Peter* on a street corner, where he was selling Street Sense, the newspaper for homeless people in the District of Columbia. He now does work for me that I don’t have the strength for.

Peter has in-demand skills, but won’t seek a regular, full-time job because he has to drop whatever he’s doing to pick up his daughter Joanne — and sometimes rush her to a hospital.

She’s prone to seizures due to a severe case of epilepsy. She also has some developmental disabilities. Peter has sole responsibility for her, as well as an older daughter.

Though he must patch together short-term, flexible jobs, the family has a home and basic needs met. For this, we can partly credit the Supplemental Security Income benefits he receives on Joanne’s behalf.

The benefits are far from generous — $733 a month. This is far less than the estimated costs of raising a child with an intellectual disability, including the earnings a parent must forfeit.

Bills introduced in the last Congress would, among other things, have restored the value SSI benefits have lost. But they’d stand even less of a chance now than then.

Meanwhile, the caps on spending for non-defense programs that depend on annual appropriations threaten the special education Joanne is receiving.

She’s entitled to a free and appropriate education under federal law, but the amount states and the District receive to help pay for it comes from one of those programs — the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

Peter recently enrolled Joanne in a program that focuses on independent living skills, both work-related and basic everyday. He’s thrilled by the progress he sees and his opportunities for “hands-on” involvement.

He can perhaps look forward to steadier, more gainful employment as Joanne becomes able to manage more on her own — to count cash, for example, wash clothes and prepare meals for herself and her family.

But she’ll gain such skills only if the program continues to receive enough money to provide the high-quality, individualized education that she and her fellow students need. The federal government surely hasn’t been doing its share.

The law that created IDEA commits the federal government to providing states with 40% of the average they spend per student, multiplied by the number of special education students they have.

Funds actually appropriated for the 2013-14 school year fell short by more than $20 billion, the Education Commission for the States reports, saying this is the most recent year it has figures for.

The under-funding didn’t begin with the Budget Control Act that’s responsible for the caps. But both the cut it initially made and the caps have caused IDEA grants for programs like Joanne’s a real-dollar loss of  9.6%, First Focus reports.

Now we’re less than two months away from the end of the short-term bill that’s keeping federal funds flowing to all the programs that depend on annual appropriations. It takes an across-the-board nick from the non-defense programs to keep spending on them below this year’s cap.

Both the House and Senate bills to fund Department of Education programs would provide very small increases for IDEA — nowhere near enough to make up for the shortfall. They may, in fact, not even support the same level and quality of services for the same number of children.

Whether the House and Senate will come together to pass an actual budget for education is an open question. What the squeeze on funding due to the budget cap isn’t.

The caps, recall, were never supposed to go into effect. They were intended as an incentive, if you will, for the bipartisan “super committee” to agree on a sensible plan for reducing the deficit.

A “sizable contingent” of Congressional Republicans still seem bound and determined to preserve the cap for non-defense programs. Defense, as I’ve previously noted, would get an increase through a backdoor.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is reportedly mulling over a “major” budget deal that would require cuts to Social Security and Medicare benefits, which don’t depend on annual appropriations. That’s almost surely going to mean no deal at all.

Everybody who lives in this country will suffer harms from the further ratcheting down of federal funding — some more directly than others. Peter and Joanne are mere drops in the ocean. But there are millions like them, doing their best in difficult situations — and vulnerable.

Large coalitions of advocacy organizations are campaigning to get Congress to #StoptheCuts — the hashtag they’ve been using on Twitter and will use for a Twitterstorm, i.e., massive blast of tweets, on Wednesday. This is an opportunity for all of you with Twitter accounts to ramp up the pressure.

You’ll see tweets to many blog posts invited and pulled together by Moms Rising. A shorter version of this post will probably be part of the “carnival.”

*  This isn’t his real name. I’ve changed both his and his daughter’s to preserve their privacy.

 


What Could Lift More Seniors Out of Poverty?

May 26, 2015

The senior poverty rate, according to the official measure, is lower than the rate for the U.S. population as a whole and considerably lower than the child poverty rate. It still translates into about 4.2 million people 65 and older whose incomes fell below the applicable poverty threshold last year — just $11,354 for those who live alone.

The more accurate Supplemental Poverty Measure boosts the senior poverty rate to 14.6% — about 2.3 million more people. But for Social Security benefits, the rate would have been a whopping 52.6%. This is why Social Security is justifiably called the most effective anti-poverty program we have.

Yet we do still have some 6.5 million seniors without enough income to live on. And our poverty prevention measures tend to focus on younger people, as Kevin Prindiville, the Executive Director of Justice in Aging, says.

We’ve got a battery of programs to support education and work-related training, for example. And we’ve got a spectrum of programs to prevent — or at the very least, reduce — poverty among those who find work, especially those with dependent family members. In other words, it’s not just younger people our measures focus on, but working families.

All too late, Prindiville observes, for someone in her 70s or 80s who’s struggling now after a lifetime of low-wage jobs. “We cannot just hold up our hands and say we should have helped … [seniors] 50 years ago, or helped their parents a century ago.”

So what would help them now? Prindiville proposes a five-step plan. He’s managed to get them into a single, compact post. I, as usual, want to flesh out the issues and solutions.

So I’ll deal here with the first two, overlapping steps and leave the remaining three for a followup.

Strengthen the Existing Safety Net and Social Insurance Programs*

Social Security, SSI (Supplemental Security Income), Medicare and Medicaid largely account for the 26% drop in the official senior poverty rate since 1960, Prindiville says. First and foremost, we need to protect them.

None of those proposed Social Security benefits cuts, increased Medicare cost-sharing, e.g., through a voucher plan, or tighter limits on Medicaid coverage, which we could expect to see under the Congressional Republicans’ upcoming block grant proposals.

On the strengthening side, I suppose Prindiville would endorse the latest version of what was originally the Strengthening Social Security Act of 2013.

It would change the benefits formula, providing an average of $65 a month more, and base annual adjustments on an as-yet-to-be-completed Consumer Price Index specifically for the elderly. And unlike the 2013 bill, it would ensure that formerly low-wage workers receive benefits at least big enough to lift them over the poverty line, provided they’d worked at least 10 years.

Of course, like its predecessor, the current bill would also keep the Social Security Trust Fund from coming up short on the money needed to pay full benefits past its projected insolvency in 2033.

Rather than simply scrapping the cap on payroll taxes, as some have proposed, it would trigger taxes on all income — not only wage income — over $250,000.

Improve Supplemental Security Income

Let’s just say proposals to boost Social Security retirement benefits won’t go anywhere in this Congress. So we’ll still have seniors in poverty.

We would anyway because not all seniors used to work — or have spouses that did. And even a work history often won’t yield a benefit anyone can live on unless it spans at least 35 years — this because of the way the Social Security Administration calculates benefits.

For the poorest 2.1 million seniors, SSI provides a safety net. But it’s in need of strengthening too. The maximum benefit — currently $733 a month — is nearly $250 less than would be needed to lift a single person over the poverty line.

No benefits at all for individuals whose savings and other “countable resources” are worth more than $2,000. Nor for couples who’ve more than $3,000. So seniors who’ve saved even a modest amount don’t qualify, though they surely need some stash they can draw on for expenses like Medicare deductibles and co-pays.

And as I’ve written before, the formula for SSI benefits adjusts them downward, based on other income beneficiaries receive. The adjustments kick in only if income exceeds a certain amount, however.

We see a preference for income earned from work — understandable, since it encourages SSI recipients to enter (or reenter) the workforce. For other income, the exclusion — or disregard, as Prindiville calls it — is a mere $20 a month, plus the value of a few other public benefits.

The benefits reduction for other income is dollar-for-dollar — twice as much as for wage income. This isn’t a problem for seniors only. But it’s a big problem for them because they’ll lose as much as they gain from even a piddling increase in Social Security retirement benefits.

Congress hasn’t updated the exclusions since it created the program in 1972. If they’d been adjusted to reflect consumer price increases, the unearned income exclusion would be roughly $112 today.

Bills that died in the last Congress would have addressed these problems, as well as what can be large benefits reductions when a friend of relative helps out with food, housing costs and/or utility bills.

Prindiville says he expects the bills to be introduced again this spring. Nothing thus far, but they probably will be — whether to be better fate remains to be seen. Not holding my breath, folks.

* Prindiville’s top-line recommendation implies that Social Security retirement benefits and Medicare are safety net programs like SSI and Medicaid, but they’re insurance programs because workers pay premiums of a sort, as payroll taxes. I’ve modified the recommendation accordingly because I, among others, feel it’s important to preserve the distinction.


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.