A disability program promises to lift people out of poverty. Instead, it left a lot

CHARLOTTE, NC – After two months sleeping at the Salvation Army Center for the Hope homeless shelter, Margaret Davis had no luck finding an apartment she could afford.

The 55-year-old grandmother receives about $750 a month from the federal government. She’s trying to survive on just $50 in cash and $150 in food stamps a month to save enough for a place to call home.

Davis is homeless, although he receives funding from the Supplemental Security Income program, a hard-to-find federal benefit created nearly 50 years ago to help Americans who are elderly, blind or disabled come out of poverty.

Davis’ job options are limited because he undergoes dialysis treatment three times a week for kidney failure. As he prepared to spend another night in an overcrowded shelter, he checked his phone to see if a doctor wanted to amputate his left leg.

“My therapist is trying to help me stay positive but sometimes I just want to end this life and start over,” Davis said.

Homelessness is not a new problem for people who receive supplemental income from the Social Security Administration. But moving recipients out of shelters, crime-ridden motels and tent camps and into stable housing is becoming more difficult, according to nonprofit attorneys, advocates for people with disabilities and academic researchers.

Rapidly rising rents and inflation deserve a share of the blame.

But SSI recipients, activists and others say the issue underscores for them how the program itself keeps millions trapped in housing instability and deep poverty even as President Joe Biden promises to fix it.

“We’re trapping people in places where dignity is out of reach,” said Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank that researches economic equality. “The program started with good intentions,” he said. “It’s hard for me to see this as anything other than willful negligence.”

In a country where 1 in 4 residents live with some form of disability, supplementary income means ensuring the most vulnerable can access housing and other basic needs. Most SSI recipients automatically qualify for Medicaid, a joint federal and state program that covers medical expenses for low-income people.

In addition to those who are blind or who are 65 or older, those who prove they have a medical condition that prevents them from working for at least one year are eligible to receive monthly payments from SSI, up to a maximum of $841. But there’s a catch that makes it hard for people like Davis to see a better financial future. Financial benefits are reduced if the individual earns more than $85 a month in additional income. And if the person saves more than $2,000, both income and Medicaid benefits are withdrawn, which critics say discourages people from saving.

The amount recipients receive has not kept pace with rising rental prices, advocacy groups say.

Davis said the amount she receives each month from the program is about $60 more than the maximum amount offered 10 years ago, when she first started receiving benefits. Yet the average apartment in Charlotte, where Davis lives, now rents for $1,500 a month, up nearly 70% from nearly a decade ago, according to Jumper, which has been tracking rental prices since 2014.

There’s no way she can afford her dream: an apartment or house in a safe neighborhood where she can spend afternoons crocheting. “I don’t like to say this, but I’m not sure what’s going to happen to me,” Davis said.

When Congress created SSI in 1972, the law promised that recipients would “no longer have to rely on incomes below the poverty-level.”

Today, about 8 million people depend on federal programs for income.

Over the past five decades, Congress under both Republican and Democratic leadership has refused to make major changes to the program. Outside the $85 income limit, for example, is not adjusted to account for inflation.

The Social Security Administration, which oversees the program, did not respond to multiple requests for comment about how the rates are set.

Biden committed to SSI reform during his 2020 presidential campaign, saying he would “protect and strengthen economic security for people with disabilities.”

But for seven months Delisa Williams has been stuck in the same homeless shelter as Davis. Diabetes, high blood pressure and osteoporosis have weakened her body, and the stress of living at the Salvation Army Center of Hope is taking a toll on her mental health.

Williams’ only real way out was a combined $881 a month from SSI and the Social Security Disability Insurance program, which have limits and requirements. He quickly realized that most places wouldn’t be enough to afford the rent.

“God will see me through,” he said. “He didn’t bring me this far for nothing.”

Among developed countries, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States is one of the most difficult places to meet disability payment criteria, the United States helped create a global intergovernmental group to advance social welfare.

If a person applies for disability income, they can wait months or even years to receive benefits. Thousands collapsed or died waiting for help. An analysis of data by the US Government Accountability Office found that from 2014 to 2019, about 48,000 people filed for bankruptcy while trying to get a final decision on a disability appeal. The same report says that from 2008 to 2019, more than 100,000 people died waiting.

The situation worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic as the Social Security Administration closed more than 1,200 field offices across the country and kept them closed for nearly two years.

The decision left hundreds of thousands of needy people unable to receive benefits, as phone lines were jammed with calls and the agency offered no way to submit applications online, said David Weaver, a former associate commissioner for research, demonstration and employment assistance. Social Security Administration.

“The number of SSI awards has just collapsed,” Weaver said.

Homeless shelters and other non-profit organizations often help clients apply for Supplemental Income in the hope that the money will help them find a place to live. Rachel Mason, a social worker at Triune Mercy Center in Greenville, South Carolina, has learned to meet people’s expectations.

“Anytime someone shows up and says I want to do housing, my heart sinks a little bit,” Mason said. “I have to be honest and tell them it could be a year to three years. Even if someone wants to rent a room in a house, it can take their entire check.”

As SSI’s 50th anniversary approaches this fall, Congress is deciding whether to make changes to the program.

In an April 2021 letter to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, more than 40 lawmakers lobbied to raise their cash benefits above the poverty level, increase the amount of money recipients can save and eliminate deductions for receiving help from loved ones, among other changes. . . “Disabled and elderly recipients of SSI represent the most marginalized members of our society,” the letter said. “History will not forgive us if we fail to meet their needs in our recovery efforts.”

A group of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have now proposed the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, which would raise the asset limit from $2,000 to $10,000 for recipients and from $3,000 to $20,000 for couples.

Davis, the woman whose leg may have been amputated, is trying to remain optimistic. He began seeing a therapist to deal with depression. He quit smoking to save money for an apartment.

Asked when he would be able to move out of the shelter, he said, “I don’t know.”

KHN (Kaiser Health News) is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues. Along with policy analysis and polling, KHN is one of the three main operating programs of the KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation). KFF is a non-profit organization that provides health information to the nation.

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