BEYOND THE NUMBERS
The Brookings Institution will host an event May 8 to debate how we help some of our most vulnerable citizens — disabled children and their families. An important part of the safety net for such families is Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides monthly cash benefits to people who are disabled, blind, or elderly and have little income and few assets. In March 2012, over 8 million people collected SSI benefits — including 1.3 million children under 18.
Here are some important things that policymakers should know about SSI for disabled children as they consider the program’s future:
- Its benefit rolls have grown only slightly faster than the population. About 1.6 percent of all children in the United States collect SSI; that’s only a bit higher than in the mid-1990s, when Congress last overhauled the program (see graph) The rising rate of child poverty and advances in early diagnosis of medical and psychiatric conditions help to explain this modest growth.
- It lifts recipients out of poverty. The maximum federal benefit for a disabled child is $698 per month; the average benefit is $616. Most families are below the poverty line without the SSI payment but above the line with the payment.
- Its medical criteria are stringent. To qualify for the program, a child’s impairments must match (or equal in severity) a list of disabling conditions compiled by the Social Security Administration (SSA). Qualified medical professionals — physicians, licensed or certified psychologists, and certain other experts such as speech pathologists — must submit evidence; assertions by parents and teachers aren’t enough. SSA approves only about 40 percent of applications.
- Cases are subject to frequent review. Children’s conditions may change; the law directs SSA to review their eligibility at least every three years (or sooner, in the case of low birth-weight babies). These reviews lead to benefit terminations for about 20 percent of cases overall and about half of low birth-weight babies. Also, special reviews that occur at age 18 end benefits for over one-third of children reaching that milestone. Last year’s Budget Control Act carved out enough room for Congress to fund those “program-integrity” activities even in a tight budget environment.
For families of disabled children, SSI benefits often are crucial to obtaining needed therapies and supports, especially when a parent faces the wrenching tradeoff between employment and caring for a severely impaired child. This congressional testimony from a mother of a disabled child is one example.
The National Academy of Social Insurance (NASI) examined the SSI program for disabled children as Congress debated the program in the mid-1990s and concluded that — while some reforms were merited — it serves a compelling need. As they review this program, lawmakers should remember its vital importance to some of America’s most vulnerable children and families.