In a political atmosphere in which the elderly and disabled may be asked to accept cuts in their benefits, there seems to be little patience for the assertion that the benefits being paid are too small. However, the National Alliance on Mental Illness has recently done just that, pointing out that SSI income to the mentally ill (and, by extension, other severely disabled people looking to that program for assistance) barely covers housing expenses.
As reported in Yahoo! News on October 5th, rent for a one-room efficiency apartment consumes anywhere between 60% and 140% of SSI benefits received. SSI, one of the main sources of support for the disabled, has income limitations that make it difficult for a recipient to live above the poverty line. For those who are mentally ill (around 35% of SSI recipients), the challenge can be even greater.
In addition to the severely disabled and the mentally ill are the poorest among us, for whom even a modest $5 reduction in SSI benefits can be devastating. AARP described the plight of a woman in Pennsylvania whose benefits were recently reduced by $5.30. The same month her SSI check was reduced, her rent went up by $10 a month. This 70 year old woman, disabled by multiple sclerosis, is subsisting on $701 from SSI and $27 from the state of Pennsylvania. From her total monthly income of $728, she has to pay rent, utilities, groceries, and co-payments on her medications. These expenses used up most of her SSI benefits. With the increase in her rent and the decrease in her state benefits, all of her income now goes for these items. If she needs clothing or shoes or any other extra amenities, she will have to skip a meal, or a doctor’s appointment, or her medication.
The political debate rages on between those who want to cut Social Security, including retirement benefits, disability benefits, medicare, and medicaid. However, the debate rages only among people who have pensions, savings, stocks and bonds, and other assets. Those who subsist on SSI or SSDI payments, who can no longer work or who could never work due to disability, or who have outlived their savings, do not debate the issue. Social Security is all that stands between them and destitution.
Five dollars a month seems like very little to those who have enough, or for those who are only “poor.” But to those living below the poverty line, $5 is more than significant. It is the inability of lawmakers to comprehend life in the financial shadows that allows them to even discuss cutting benefits to the most needy. It is this inability to imagine the consequences of cuts in SSI and SSDI on people at that level of subsistence that prevents them from seeing that the old age and disability safety nets provided by Social Security cost much less than it would cost to deal with people in financial ruin.
Whether or not SSI or SSDI recipients could have avoided their current plight is not the issue. Some of them might have done so, but made poor choices. Some of them have been handicapped all their lives by mental illness or physical disability. Some were felled in their prime. Some were left orphaned as children. The issue is to come up with an alternative if we intend to cut the assistance that barely covers their basic needs.
It costs about $25,000 a year to house prisoners in the penal system. If we gave each SSI recipient a raise to $800 a month, it would cost only $9,600 a year. Let’s vote to spend one-third as much on our elderly and disabled citizens as we do on our felons.