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Nicholas Kristof Gets It Wrong on SSI - These Benefits Are Critical for Families in Need

Last week, New York Times writer Nicholas Kristof, a writer I respect and admire enormously, wrote a surprisingly critical piece of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. He detailed the stories of a few families, arguing that SSI “condemned [disabled children] to a life of poverty on the dole.”

I have a few stories of my own about disabled adults on SSI, and trust me, they need it. Between 2008 and 2009, I spent a year as a case manager at a homeless shelter in Chicago. In that time, I worked with many guests and clients of the shelter who had mental and/or physical disabilities that prevented them from working. And when you can’t work – it’s hard to have enough income to let you meet basic needs. That’s where assistance programs came in.

One of my clients at the shelter was a man who had been on SSI since he was a child. He had been a part of the program that serves disabled children and had transitioned into the adult program after turning 18. Then in his late 20s, I worked with him as he went through the routine evaluation conducted to check disability status, or check that the person is still in need of SSI. This man wasn’t someone who was trying to cheat the system – he suffered from a mental illness, was unable to work, and as an adult had to continue to prove his need for SSI. His meager SSI check was what paid his rent, bought food, and got him around the city to appointments.

In another case, I helped someone else apply for SSI. Due to mental illness, he had long periods of time where he was unable to work. Without work, there was no income to pay rent. The application for SSI was long and complicated – as I tried to help him sort through the information needed to prove disability, I found the process very overwhelming at times. And in addition to providing disability, SSI has extremely strict income and resource requirements that applicants must meet – standards that haven’t been updated in nearly 30 years.

Of course these few stories, just like Kristof’s don’t paint a picture of the whole program. So let me do that for you, too. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities released a paper noting that there isn’t evidence of widespread abuse among families receiving SSI for their disabled children. And today, Greg Kaufmann issued a rebuttal that noted, it isn’t easy to hop on SSI when times are hard – many families who have children with disabilities don’t get SSI because of the strict eligibility rules. For those who do receive SSI, the program represents a vital lifeline. In 2011, SSI lifted more than two million people out of poverty – including 311,000 children. But for some on SSI – it won’t even do that. Benefits are less than $700 a month and add up roughly $8,400 a year – hardly enough to live on.

Like Kristof, I don’t want to write anyone off either – but that means that we need to provide opportunity and support vital assistance programs that help families in need. Let’s help children in early education initiative – but also maintain a strong SSI program.