First Person

Struggling to Get By on SSI

Editor’s note: Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a safety net program that provides a very basic income to older adults and people with disabilities who have either no or very limited other income and resources. The maximum possible federal monthly benefit for an individual is currently $733. The SSI program’s financial eligibility requirements have changed little since the program was signed into law in 1972, and increasing numbers of recipients are living in poverty, going hungry, or becoming homeless. The SSI Restoration Act of 2015 would update the program’s out-of-date income and asset limits to better reflect the cost of living in today’s dollars.

You work your whole life. You pay your taxes – boy, do you pay your taxes. Unlike upper-middle and upper-class folks who have tax preparers and accountants to help them with their taxes and find deductions and loopholes and so forth, you get slammed every year and you can barely keep afloat…then, the worst happens.

You get old and disabled and you can’t work any more and your disability/social security isn’t really enough to live on and you never were able to get much retirement money together so the government gives you something called SSI. Between that and Social Security you still don’t have enough to live on but what can you do?

To add indignity to insult, the government tells you how much money you can have in the bank and it ain’t much: just $2,000.

If someone lends you money to get by you can’t repay the debt out of your Social Security or SSI because the government watches everything you do and they don’t want you to borrow money or pay it back because the bottom line is the government is afraid to be cheated. Sadly enough, they are mostly afraid of being cheated by poor people. Rich people seem to be able to get away with murder.

The government is mostly afraid of being cheated by poor people. Rich people seem to be able to get away with murder.

Now a bunch of politicians and well-wishers are trying to change the laws a little bit…not majorly, just minorly, to make it a little easier for us to survive. And yet they will run into obstacles.

I wish everyone who opposes making life a little better for poor old disabled people (or even poor old people) would put $10.00 in an envelope and send it anonymously to a poor old person.

In the meantime, I’m looking for a part-time or freelance job. I’m 72 and I’m broke and can’t afford to live on Social Security and SSI and I don’t really know what to do. Also, I’m in dialysis, so that chews up around four days a week. So I’ll keep looking for a job, albeit futilely, and if I can figure out a way to rob a bank I might do that…I have an electric wheelchair and could do a slow-speed chase down the street if I had to.…

So, whilst I’m thinking of it, if anyone out there wants to offer me a job I would be extremely happy, and also, I could use a nice little house with a yard for my dog and a couple of tomato plants and maybe a lemon tree or an avocado tree. Just thought I’d put that out there.

Cheers to all, and remember, wait for the supermarket sales! And never give up – fight to the bitter end.



Reducing Future Homelessness by Keeping Families Together

Though the child welfare system has an important role to play in protecting families and children, taking a child away from his or her family is too often the main tool in its toolkit. Poverty, homelessness, mental illness and substance abuse can lead to child neglect and abuse, but if those factors are addressed, a safe home environment with family members can be achieved.

Foster care itself is an incomplete solution. As many as half of young adults who age out of foster care spend time homeless. More than half a million unaccompanied youth experience homelessness every year, and only 10 percent of them are served by targeted programs funded under the Runaway and Homeless Youth Act, such as basic care centers, emergency shelters, transitional living programs and street outreach.

The Corporation for Supportive Housing (CSH) calls on Congress to change child welfare policy based on what works: “Keeping Families Together” (KFT).  KFT is a pilot effort that uses federal Family Unification Program (FUP) vouchers to provide affordable housing to families at risk of losing their children and also to youth aging out of foster care at risk of becoming homeless. Rather than targeting the most “stable” families, KFT is unusual because it seeks out families with the most complex cases. Case managers build trust with the families, help them navigate multiple government systems, connect them with parenting classes and resources, and mediate between the family and the child welfare system to resolve new and ongoing cases based on direct knowledge of the family’s circumstances.

Michelle and her three young sons offer a clear example of how KFT helps sustain families. Michelle spent years struggling with poverty and drug abuse and shuttling her children between homeless shelters. With the help of KFT, the family moved into a two-bedroom apartment. But suddenly, crisis struck. Michelle’s 13-year-old son, Donovan, has serious behavioral and emotional problems and can be physically aggressive. One night, he attacked Michelle with a broom.  The only way she could defend herself was to strike back. Donovan reported his mother for hitting him and the city opened a child welfare case against her. Michelle’s KFT case manager interceded with child welfare on Michelle’s behalf. Now Donovan is getting proper treatment and medication, and Michelle’s family has stayed intact. “I don’t know what I would do without the services here,” Michelle said. “Sometimes when you need support, you need it right then—not tomorrow or next week.”

If we value families, we should do everything we can to help them stay together and succeed.

Thanks to KFT, families once on the brink of crisis now have a place to call home and the support they need to stay together. Most families had no new abuse or neglect cases after moving to supportive housing. Six children were reunited with their families from foster care. Nearly all of the families with substance abuse problems reported that they were clean and sober at the end of the evaluation period. School attendance improved steadily. Moreover, so much money was saved by reducing the use of foster care and the shelter system that the program cost the public only three dollars per family per day. The pilot was therefore expanded to 665 families in five states, through a private-public partnership with the Department of Health and Human Services.

We now have important evidence about how to use FUP vouchers effectively. First, youth leaving foster care currently only receive 18 months of assistance. This isn’t nearly enough time to adjust to their new housing and services and successfully transition to independence. We urge Congress to extend assistance to 60 months. Second, family FUP vouchers are not being used as an early intervention strategy to stabilize families, which is essential to avoid the trauma of separation. Finally, there are almost no ongoing services for families or youth receiving the FUP voucher.

Congress should follow the lead of the KFT program—enact legislation that encourages family preservation and reunification, community-based services, and developmentally appropriate services for youth leaving foster care.  If we value families, we should do everything we can to help them stay together and succeed.



Orange is the New Black is Dead Wrong About Disability

SPOILER ALERT: This article discusses events within the first episode of Season 3.

Et tu, Orange is the New Black?

The Netflix drama is back with a third season, and if you’re like me, it monopolized the better part of the last two weekends. The show deserves credit for sparking dialogue and increasing awareness about mass incarceration in the U.S., particularly among people who hadn’t previously considered criminal justice reform to be their thing.

The show’s typically smart writing and masterful treatment of a serious and complex topic made the first episode all the more disappointing.

One of the very first scenes of the third season is a flashback to the character Pennsatucky’s childhood. We watch as her mother forces her to chug an entire two-liter bottle of Mountain Dew. Pan right to the sign showing us that they’re at the Social Security Administration office. Then we hear Mom say, with a young Pennsatucky now bouncing off the walls behind her, “So I understand, Supplemental Security Income benefits for kids like mine are $314 a month, is that right?”

The implication is clear: Mom is attempting to simulate the symptoms of ADHD in her child in order to fraudulently obtain SSI benefits.

This scene caused me to have several flashbacks of my own. First, to the mid-1990s, when a flurry of media reports accused parents of “coaching” their children to “act disabled” in order to feign eligibility for SSI benefits. The “crazy checks” media frenzy, as it came to be known, spurred Congress to narrow the program’s eligibility rules, causing more than 100,000 children with disabilities to lose critically needed benefits. The media claims were later shown to be baseless, but the damage had already been done, and Congress had already legislated by anecdote.

I also flashed back to 2010, when media allegations accused parents of seeking psychotropic medications for their children in hopes of SSI eligibility. These claims were similarly debunked after multiple investigations. But again, the media allegations rang loudly in the halls of Congress, leading to hearings and yet more proposals to cut SSI.

My head swirling, I was next transported to 2012, when New York Times columnist Nick Kristof sparked yet another kids’ SSI media hubbub by accusing parents of pulling their kids out of literacy programs in order to obtain SSI benefits. Mr. Kristof’s claims that the program incents parents to keep their kids from learning to read were similarly unsupported by the facts—but that didn’t stop NPR from doubling down on his claims with their own (widely discredited) “reporting” just a few months later. Legislation that would kick young people with disabilities off of SSI if they miss school is now pending in Congress.

Each set of media allegations—as well as the disappointing OITNB scene—reflects a continued lack of understanding of mental impairments. They perpetuate the stereotype that if you have a visible physical impairment, you’re ‘truly disabled,’ but if you have an invisible mental disorder, your impairment is somehow less real, or less legitimate.

What’s more, each set of media attacks—as well as the OITNB scene—reflects vast ignorance about the SSI program, perpetuating the myth that it’s easy to get benefits. Getting hyped up on a caffeinated drink before you walk into the Social Security office may make for entertaining TV, but it won’t get you anything in real life.

SSI serves as a vital lifeline for families caring for children with disabilities. It makes it possible for families to care for their children with disabilities at home and in their communities, instead of in costly and isolating institutions. Only children with the most severe impairments and illnesses qualify for SSI. The majority of children who apply are denied, and fewer than 1 in 4 U.S. children with disabilities receive benefits.

The silver screen’s treatment of important public policy issues has a very real, and potentially destructive, impact.

Raising a child with a disability is extraordinarily expensive. Families caring for children with disabilities are more than twice as likely as other families with children to face material hardships such as homelessness, food insecurity, and utility shutoff. The financial support that SSI provides helps to offset some of the commonly incurred costs, including special therapies, diapers for older children, adaptive equipment, and transportation to doctors and specialists, many of which are not covered by insurance or have high copays. SSI benefits also replace a portion of lost income when a parent must stay home or reduce her hours to care for a child.ADHD is a neurobiological disorder that affects 5 to 8 percent of school-age children.

But only the most severely impaired children are eligible for SSI. More than 75 percent of children with ADHD who apply for benefits are denied, and just 4 percent of U.S. children with ADHD receive SSI.

Moreover, qualifying for SSI on the basis of ADHD—or any other mental or physical impairment—requires extensive medical evidence from approved medical sources (including physicians and specialists) documenting the severe impairment as well as its resulting symptoms. A child’s impairment must result in marked and severe functional limitations and must be expected to last at least 12 months or to result in death.

In fairness to Orange is the New Black, the show is fiction. Unlike the media frenzies over the years, it didn’t claim to be reporting the facts. But, as with the latest season of House of Cards, which was infused with “real-world lies” about Social Security—it’s “sucking us dry”… “entitlements are bankrupting us”—the silver screen’s treatment of important public policy issues has a very real, and potentially destructive, impact. (Coincidentally or not, House of Cards is also produced by Netflix.)

Media portrayals that reinforce myths about mental disorders do us a significant disservice and contribute to the harmful denial of mental illness that persists even in the 21st century. Media portrayals that reinforce negative stereotypes about vital programs and the individuals helped by them are similarly dangerous, sowing the seeds for cuts that will make vulnerable people’s lives all the more difficult.



Pope Francis’s Encyclical and an Urgent Response to Poverty

Pope Francis’s historic, soaring encyclical on ecological and economic justice was made public just hours after the horrifying murders in the South Carolina church, where nine African Americans were gunned down by a young white man. The juxtaposition makes me weep in the realization that such violence is yet more evidence of a brokenness in our world described so eloquently by the pope.

In his encyclical, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of our interconnectedness. “Everything is connected. Concern for the environment thus needs to be joined to a sincere love for our fellow human beings and an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” He also returned again and again to the injustice of inequality and “the intimate relationships between [people who are] poor and the fragility of the planet.”

The encyclical strongly criticized consumerist, profit-seeking economies like ours as economies of exclusion, where short-term gains take precedence over long-term justice. Those who are left out – most often people who have been pushed into poverty – are denied just access to water, food, housing and other necessities of life, which are all basic human rights. Marketplace solutions favored by many will not address these needs, and the desire of some to privatize water and other resources will cause enormous harm to already struggling families.

Those with the most wealth and power owe a “social debt” to people at the margins.

Those who push technology as the answer to many of our problems are usually seeking short-term results, most often higher profits, at the expense of those at the economic margins. We see the results when low-income workers lose jobs to technology substitutes thought to improve efficiency and lower costs.

And, of course, it is most often poor communities that suffer the most from environmental degradation. People in poor communities are more often exposed to pollutants than those in wealthy areas, and they are less able to afford insurance and other protections during extreme weather events.

Pope Francis calls on all of us, especially those in power, to find bold, integrative solutions to all of these injustices. Those with the most wealth and power owe a “social debt” to people at the margins. They are therefore obligated to make sure they have all that is essential to their survival and wellbeing.

As the pope puts it, “Society as a whole, and the state in particular, are obliged to defend and promote the common good. In the present condition of global society, where injustices abound and growing numbers of people are deprived of basic human rights and considered expendable, the principle of the common good immediately becomes, logically and inevitably, a summons to solidarity and a preferential option for the poorest of our brothers and sisters.”

In the end, the pope is calling for spiritual conversion and “an unwavering commitment to resolving the problems of society.” Persistent poverty is one of our nation’s most urgent problems, and it deserves an urgent response.



25 Years Later: Lessons from the Organizers of Justice for Janitors

On June 15, 1990, the Los Angeles Police Department viciously attacked immigrant janitors who were striking for the right to organize in Century City, Los Angeles. In a story that is now all too familiar, the police claimed they were defending themselves. Only later, when TV news footage exposed the police clubbing non-violent strikers, was the self-defense claim discredited. Two women miscarried, dozens were hospitalized, and 60 strikers and supporters were jailed.


After the violence, the workers regrouped in a nearby park where one of the strikers said, “What they did to us today in front of the TV cameras, is the way the police treat us every day.” Another woman striker told a reporter, “I wasn’t robbing a bank or selling drugs, I’m simply asking for an increase in pay but the police beat us as if we were garbage.”


However, the police assault backfired, and the response of the campaign organizers and activists is still instructive today. Far from being beaten into submission, the strikers met the next day and voted unanimously to return to the scene of the violence on the following day.

Over the next weeks, public outrage at the police helped galvanize support for the strikers. Janitors in Century City won their union, doubling their pay and benefits. Century City also proved a tipping point for the Justice for Janitors campaign. Many in the labor movement had argued that janitors were impossible to organize—they were undocumented, part-time, subcontracted, workers of color—but the campaign demonstrated clearly that not only could these workers organize, they could win.

Emboldened by success in Century City, Janitors in Washington, D.C. blocked the 14th Street Bridge with school buses, effectively shutting down the nation capital’s rush hour commute.

bridgeAt the University of Miami, Janitors fasted for weeks as part of their lengthy and winning strike. Workers in wheel chairs, weakened by the fast, surrounded the university’s president, Donna Shalala and chanted in Spanish, “Union or death!” In Houston, 5,000 Janitors won a first-time union contract in a “right-to-work” state, despite the fact that bail was set at more than $20 million for people arrested for non-violent acts of civil disobedience in the city. Workers in cities across the nation went on strike in support of the Houston Janitors, and allies in Europe occupied buildings. Finally, pension fund trustees in charge of $1 trillion in workers’ pension fund capital adopted “responsible contractor” procedures—committing to invest only in office buildings where janitors were treated fairly.

The Justice for Janitors campaign succeeded because it relentlessly went after the building owners and financiers at the top of the real estate industry—the people who truly had power over the janitors’ livelihood—not the cleaning companies who were powerless subcontractors. The campaign also exposed an economy that was increasingly using sub-contracting and other schemes to separate and isolate workers from the corporations and companies that were actually in control of their wages, benefits and overall working conditions.

Justice for Janitors became much more than a “union organizing campaign,” it grew into a movement. Its influence and impact extended far beyond the people directly involved in the campaign’s actions. Its success was rooted in its ability to pit the needs of an entire community against the wealth of the real estate industry. The movement penetrated pop culture with Adrian Brody starring in Bread and Roses, a movie based on the Century City Strike. The game show Jeopardy asked contestants, “What is Justice for Janitors?” The campaign was also part of the back-story of the assistant in The Devil Wears Prada. The Justice for Janitors movement became a living example of what was possible—even against the greatest odds.

Hundreds of articles and dissertations have now been written about the keys to the success of the campaign. Some claim that it succeeded through militant direct action, strikes, and disruption rooted in the struggles of Central America. Others state it was through grounding organizing in immigrant communities. Still others say it was due to integrating existing union membership with non-union workers. Additionally, some view global solidarity, corporate leverage, and “top-down” tactics as the basis of the campaign’s success.

As two of the original organizers of Justice for Janitors—with 25 years of distance from the Century City Strike—the key lesson for us is that there is no silver bullet; there isn’t one thing, one strategy, one action, or one tactic that magically beats billionaires or creates the space for a movement to develop.

Yet Justice for Janitors unquestionably provides critical lessons for future organizing: As Wall Street and the finance industry increasingly take control over the global economy, we have to look up the economic food chain and target the real culprits. We have to bring as many stakeholders to the fight as possible, and creatively and aggressively organize to disrupt business as usual for those in control—that can mean strikes, civil disobedience, engaging shareholders, or directly challenging other business, social, and political interests and their exploitative practices and schemes.

Workers’ lives have been disrupted enough. It’s time to turn the tables.