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GOP Poverty Plan Would Hurt Some of Most Vulnerable Children

The House GOP poverty plan would eliminate Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits for 1.3 million severely disabled children in poor families, vaguely proposing to re-orient SSI to provide services instead.  Eliminating these modest but critical benefits, however, would hurt some of America’s most vulnerable children and damage their prospects for future success.  While vital, the services are a supplement, not a substitute, for cash assistance.  What’s more, many SSI children already receive these services through existing special education, early intervention, and health care programs.

As we consider ways to address poverty, we should strengthen — not weaken — SSI, which plays an important role in reducing poverty and hardship today and improving prospects for tomorrow:

  • SSI helps families cover the extra costs associated with raising a disabled child.  Raising a child is costly — and raising a child with a disability further raises parents’ costs and lowers their earnings.  One study puts that extra cost, including lost parental income, at $6,150 a year — and $20,000 when raising the most severely impaired children.  SSI benefits allow families to get the highly individual supports their children require, many of which wouldn’t be covered in a generic “services” model.  Further, they support families when a parent must reduce his or her work to meet the special needs of a severely impaired child.
  • SSI significantly reduces poverty and deep poverty.  To qualify for SSI, recipients must meet strict medical criteria and have very low income and assets.  The average SSI benefit for a disabled child is only $650 a month.  Without SSI benefits, most SSI families would be in poverty.  SSI particularly reduces deep poverty (income below 50 percent of the poverty line) among families with disabled children.
  • SSI helps severely disabled children from poor families meet unique challenges.  Childhood health problems — especially mental health problems — damage adult prospects (see here and here).  A stable source of income mitigates the challenges that disabled children from poor families face.  While most research has focused on the long-term gains from broader safety-net programs (such as SNAP, tax credits, and health care), one study found lasting gains from SSI benefits for disabled children: longer workforce attachment and lower welfare receipt.

The GOP’s poverty plan doesn’t represent “new thinking.”  In the mid-1990s, lawmakers considered — but firmly rejected — the idea of replacing SSI’s cash benefits for disabled children with services, agreeing with two expert panels (see here and here) that the idea was deeply flawed. 

SSI’s income support is one part of a larger system of services that help disabled children succeed in school and successfully transition to adulthood.  Removing the assistance that enables families to cover the high costs of raising disabled children won’t reduce poverty — and it could jeopardize the most vulnerable kids’ long-term chances.