SSI Again

I’ve written about SSI before and I’m going to do it again.

People on SSI have been deemed by the federal government to be disabled to the point of not being able to hold a full-time job. It is a program of the Treasury Department that is managed by the Social Security Administration. The laws regarding SSI, who receives it and how much monthly income a person can receive are all controlled by Congress.

In the majority of the United States people on SSI are given a monthly benefit of $500. Some states, like California, add money to this. In California, instead of giving people on SSI Food Stamps, the state directs that funding into SSI. This brings the California SSI benefit rate to roughly $866 per month. The state share equals $366 per month per person.

In California there are roughly 1.3 million people living on SSI. The majority of these people have significant developmental and mental health disabilities. Some are blind and some are physically disabled.

The biggest benefit of SSI is needed medical care. The biggest drawback is the monthly income limit.

The benefits to the country are significant. People with severe developmental disabilities are able to use SSI programs and rules to work part time in their communities. There are thousands of not-for-profit organizations that assist people in finding jobs and working. In Mendocino County programs like ABC do an amazing job. Their participants are able to give their services to their communities. And their communities greatly benefit. The thrift store you shop at, the grocery store you visit, the highway rest stop you use have more than likely benefited significantly from people living on SSI.

People on SSI clean bathrooms, sort donated items, sweep sidewalks, act as cashiers, stock shelves and much more. The vast majority of people living on SSI give back to their communities far more than they are ever given in return. And they are more than happy to do it.

Most of you know that I am on SSI. I have an Autism Spectrum Disorder. I also have a variety of other physical disabilities. And I give back to my community as much as I can. I voluntarily manage a video archive; a project that has been the greatest thing I have ever done. I have met some absolutely amazing people. I can count as my associates Peter Shaplen and Valerie Coleman Morris. And I work for television legends Jan Yanehiro and Richard Hart.

I also spend much of my time volunteering at the Marin History Museum. I have volunteered with the Museum since 1996 and joined the Board of Directors a few months ago. I am honored to be able to serve the Museum in any capacity.

What I am most thankful for is that both of these organizations has accepted me with open arms.

There are significant issues with SSI and the rules Congress has put in place since it was started in 1974. And there is some fraud that takes place. Some of it is understandable and some of it is outrageous.

You might not know that the people I mentioned above that have contributed significantly to your communities are paid significantly less than minimum wage. Part of this is because if they work under a certain federal law (which gives them less than have of minimum wage) their SSI is not affected.

BUT if they worked half-time (20 hours per week) at minimum wage (roughly $142 per week at the federal minimum wage level of $7.25 per hour) they would risk losing their SSI and medical benefits. How does this make sense?

I live in San Francisco. The average rent for a 1 bedroom apartment is $2,800 per month. In some places in the United States the rent could be as low as $300 per month. And so many people here are forced to live in closet sized rooms and share a bathroom with 60 other people. And they have no ability to improve this situation. Their only other option is to live on the streets, which some do. But there is nowhere in California you can find a 1 bedroom apartment for less than the total amount people on SSI receive.

And let me add that people on SSI do not automatically receive housing assistance through HUD and Section 8. And even if they did less than 1/10 of all landlords are willing to rent to people receiving Section 8 assistance. And this is a good place to discuss fraud.

Is there fraud? Absolutely. There are some people living off of SSI that don’t deserve the assistance. Someone that claims to have a severely damaged back but can then lift a 50lbs box is defrauding the people of the United States. And states contribute to this fraud. When you go to apply for state funded general assistance (at least in California) one of the first things they do is try to get you on SSI. The state does not want to pay so they find a way to force the federal government to pay. And those of us that really do need the assistance suffer.

And then there are those on SSI that do, legally, commit fraud. They work under the table so that they can have the money to eat. This is quite common. And they really have no other option. They are forced to either defraud the government or starve to death.

You probably don’t know that people on SSI are not allowed to receive any type of assistance from others. We are not allowed to accept food from our families. We are not allowed to accept clothing or grooming products. And we are not allowed to accept any amount of extra money, even if it is only a $1 to ride the bus.

There is a program through HUD and Section 8 that allows us to buy a home but we have to have at least $20,000 to pay for the downpayment and closing costs. But legally we are not allowed to have any assets that total more than $2,000.

How does this make any sense?

The reality is that it doesn’t. SSI is a disaster. It is not meeting it’s original goals because Social Security and Congress have significantly complicated things. And there are more than 6 million Americans that are suffering. Is there a way to fix this? Absolutely!

First the government needs to allow the American Psychological Association to decide what specific mental and developmental illnesses cause life-long disabilities. Many children on SSI have been diagnosed with ADHD. This is a mental health issue that rarely follows a person into adulthood.  And this diagnosis does not mean the person can’t work a full-time job.

Secondly the government needs to weed out people that are on SSI solely because of addiction issues. Their problems should be handled by the states.

But the biggest thing Congress can do is redefine SSI and the people that qualify for it. In my learned opinion SSI should only be for people that have life-long disabilities (pre 18 years of age) or have a genetic condition that causes a severe disability later in life (like MS).

I then propose that SSI be solely the finical obligation of the federal government. States would not have any involvement and would be bared from suggesting that anyone seeking state benefits apply for SSI. And once this is reality I would set the monthly SSI rate at the equivalent to a full-time job at federal minimum wage. I would then allow individuals on SSI to work as much as they like as long as their income does not exceed $1,000 per month above what they are receiving through SSI.

When it comes to housing why can’t we start a new program through HUD that includes rentals and ownerships. On the rental side let’s say that someone on SSI pays no more and not less than $200 per month. And on the ownership side lets say that banks and individuals can donate code compliant houses and condos in return for a tax deduction equal to the market rate for that property. This make sense to me.

And the final part is healthcare. I say let’s develop a new section of Medicare solely for people on SSI. This section would pay for all medical expenses, including mental heath services. No copay’s for medications and no premiums for issuance policies.

The goal of all of this is to both support people with severe disabilities and allow them to contribute as much as they can to their communities. I have seen people on SSI do some pretty amazing things. But they are never recognized for their courage and endurance. And I should know. I’m one of them.