Supplemental Security Income: Welfare's Worst Trap [Brigade Congress 2020]

Session: Supplemental Security Income: Welfare’s Worst Trap Rene Joy

Text I’ll be reading from:


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Post-Event Checklist:

  • Update this post with the session recording (if any)

Update: It was much, much harder for me to transition from presenting to reading questions/comments to responding than I thought it would be, so I wanted to be sure I followed up now that I’m better able to do so:

From @thadk - NAC / Code for Boston to Everyone: 04:19 PM
+++ Windfall Awareness project (Code for Boston) would love to collaborate with you – we turned the best official Social Security detailed calculator to an in-browser web app API. We have an eye toward the benefit cliff from a related prior project we did in MA.

We followed up at the social hour later on, but I wanted to note here, too, that (yours and) @annemeeker’s presentation for Modernizing Congress: Bringing Government into the 21st Century was very influential in my feeling comfortable bringing my efforts into the CFA sphere.

I’ll quote what she said specifically when asked what she’d wish she’d known beforehand, because it was deeply impactful for me in that moment: "I wish I had been less intimidated by the idea of taking on a tech project."

From Heather [she/her] to Everyone: 04:20 PM
Also, one consequence of the rules: An unmarried couple who both earn income can lose the benefit if they decide to marry.

Disability advocates consider this a form of enforced marriage inequality, and it is – the way this rule works most directly impacts couples in which one person receives SSI and the other one doesn’t (presumably because they are able-bodied).

And, the SSI recipient does not need to be earning money of their own for this to occur – given the way the rules work, particularly the earned income disregard (which is $65 of the total $85 regular income disregards used; numbers that haven’t changed since 1974), if an ineligible spouse’s countable income is more than the difference of the Individual SSI federal benefit rate and the Couple SSI federal benefit rate (called the allocation or living allowance for the ineligible spouse), the SSI recipient’s benefit payment begins to reduce $1 for every $2 of their ineligible spouse’s countable income above that difference.

Even if there’s a narrow needle to thread there that allows an ineligible spouse to work and the SSI recipient to maintain benefits, it’s requires the kind of complex budgeting that most people do not have the time for – and few tools are fit for the job, too.

From @Bonnie - to Everyone: 04:23 PM
I grew up on welfare with a single mom - I want to just send this slide deck to anyone who cannot understand these realities and says dumb stuff like pull up your bootstraps!

Rene, do you have examples of orgs that are doing useful work in the space.

1: Please share the slide deck, the doc and the video far and wide, although I certainly hope to develop and help others develop a lot more content about these topics! These intricacies need broadcasting so that we’re all more comfortable talking about them – and then, hopefully, making change happen.

2: Benefit Kitchen, Leap Fund, Circles USA, Benefits21 and the National Disability Institute are all doing work either directly or indirectly related to these issues that I think is promising. There are lot of projects in development or initiatives begun like this; almost all of them are themed around getting off of safety net benefits as fast as possible, so the language used can be incredibly stigmatizing and paternalistic. I have not found any that are started by recipients – most are by service providers of some kind, primarily.

The work done by the National Disability Institute may be the most informed when it comes to the specific issues related to SSI – but I have to say that from my current interactions with that, their teams also lack deep knowledge and awareness about many facts-of-the-matter issues. I queried a team in a recent webinar about certain SSI issues and did not receive what I would consider educated answers in the follow up.

From @giosce to Everyone: 04:24 PM
Rene, that was great! Can’t we build any tech tool to help?

Thank you, I so appreciate all the feedback from that talk. I answered this indirectly, but it definitely needs to be said again and again – tech can help, yes, but more and more I think that before we try to build tech to scale for issues like this, we’re better serving the community when we build a tool that works for just one person or household, specifically meeting their needs as they define them.

From @jess to Everyone: 04:26 PM
Does this tend to be a translation problem with the existing info? Or is it a policy issue that may or may not have an infrastructure solution?

This is a great question, and I’ll say that the distillation of law into plain and plainer language creates gaps in understanding like the ones we see that devalue benefits due to fixed-dollar limits forgotten about or ignored and left in place for decades.

In a recent convo with @elb, I pointed out that it’s not like a developer needs to know some number in a list of computations hasn’t changed in decades in order for them to get their job done – that’s not a detail that’s going to wind up in the code’s comments or user manual.

But it should.

It’s one more way we systemically reinforce ignorance about what’s actually happening here when we’re just pushing buttons and pulling levers, satisfied by a technically correct answer on the screen.

The numbers in these machines are living dead things, ghosts in truth, and we the people haunted by their ever-rotting remains every day.

From Flint Barrow to Everyone: 04:26 PM
yes, like a turbotax wizard but for this process instead?

Perhaps then a tool that connects helpers with those who need it? To do the one on one personal approaches with them

1: Yes! I actually call the budgeting and cliff calculator tool “if Mint and TurboTax were designed as one platform, but with the financial realities of safety net recipients in mind.”

2: I would say that rather than spending time and effort creating a tool to connect people who want help making a tool, just look for those more organic ways of connecting to community. :wink: A personal approach for a personal approach, if you will. And to that end, I’ll continue to update the CFA sphere with efforts on developing Safety Net Support Groups where it may be easier to connect organically with those who are seeking help with stuff like this.

From irkydink to Everyone: 04:28 PM
when you initially got your benefits, did the process require you to hire a lawyer?

Short answer: no.

Long answer is still no, but it’s not that simple, and it’s worth exploring a little more in a discussion forum.

Although I didn’t disclose it explicitly in my talk, I am disabled; I only mentioned specifically that both of my children are disabled – and, only my children are approved to receive SSI benefits.

It’s much harder for adults than for children to be approved – in our case, they benefited from having a great deal of school and health provider documentation beforehand, which is often given more weight than a household’s own report of disabling conditions (another institutionalized factor that favors applicants with any measure or mixture of socioeconomic privileges and advantages). Each of my children were approved within 6 months after applying, several years ago now. I was denied for both SSI and SSDI, though I only applied once.

It’s considered a rite of passage that every applicant is denied first after an average of 1-2 years’ wait, and that an appeal is only worth doing if you have a lawyer’s help. It’s also considered a fair barometer of potential approval for benefits if a lawyer decides to take your case on – lawyers for disability are usually paid from a percentage they take of the backpay recipients get due to the long wait for approval they face.

Approval is backdated to the date of the application – so, by the time that happens 2 years down the line, applicants get a large lump sum payment for a portion of the time they waited. For many lawyers, if they don’t think the SSA is likely to be persuaded in the end, they may not take the case, or may ask to be paid upfront.

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