BEYOND THE NUMBERS
National Public Radio (NPR) is running a series of reports about the disability programs that the Social Security Administration (SSA) runs. While my posts earlier this week (see here and here) focused chiefly on adult beneficiaries — whose severe impairments, often in tandem with advanced age and limited education, prevent them from working — today I’ll discuss a young and vulnerable group: disabled children who receive benefits from the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.
NPR repeated some unwarranted stereotypes about this program. Here are the facts:
- The program isn’t mushrooming. In December 2012, SSI provided cash benefits to 1.3 million children with severe impairments whose families had low income and few assets. They represented just 1.7 percent of all children under 18. That rate has inched up only gradually in the past decade (see chart), probably due to advances in detecting certain conditions and to the marked rise in children’s poverty. (Meanwhile, the number of working-age SSI recipients between 18 and 64 had been stable or declining as a percentage of the population until the recent economic downturn.) The growth of disability benefits doesn’t begin to offset the gutting of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program as a safety net for poor children and their families.
- The eligibility criteria are stringent. Applicants must submit strong medical evidence, and SSA rejects about 60 percent of applications.
- Benefits are vital to children and their families. SSI helps families cover the extra costs of raising a severely disabled child — costs that researchers estimate average $6,000 to $11,000 a year — and lifts many recipients out of deep poverty. This modest but steady source of income provides critical stability in housing, education, and medical care.
- The program rewards work. SSI rules encourage the parents of disabled children to work — by disregarding half of the parents’ earnings in assessing income eligibility and benefit levels, and by assuming that some portion of what’s left is needed to support other family members (not just the disabled child). And similar rules encourage the child recipient to work part-time when he or she reaches the teen years. The transition to adulthood can be tough for these severely impaired teenagers, but the agency is carefully evaluating the best ways to help them attain self-sufficiency.
- Benefits don’t continue indefinitely. The law directs SSA to review children’s eligibility at least every three years (or sooner, in the case of low-birthweight babies) and at age 18. Parents must cooperate with those reviews, which often lead to benefit termination. (Nevertheless, Congress systematically underfunds the reviews, which save nearly $10 for every $1 they cost to conduct.)