Monday, May 17, 2010

A letter about SSI and work incentives

Dear Senator Durbin:

I am writing as a constituent of Illinois. My name is ______ ________ and I am 22-years old. Growing up in New Lenox, IL I have been the fortunate recipient of luxuries such as an outstanding school district, well maintained roads, and a remarkable park district. Never, would I have thought to criticize the government, locally or federally. Yet, as circumstances would have it, my world was turned upside down in the summer of 2003. Having suffered a spinal cord injury after a diving accident, I was rendered a quadriplegic. The newfound limitations of paralysis and incurred medical expenses eventually put me in contact with the U.S. government’s Social Security department. After years of interacting with this agency I have come to conclude that the disabled population continues to be provided little incentive to integrate into the employment sector.

As I am sure you know, the Supplemental Security Income Program (SSI) makes cash assistance payments to the aged, blind and disabled people who have limited income and resources. Tax revenues generate the funds, for which this program operates. The current maximum asset level, to continue eligibility for SSI, is set at the sum of $2,000. Given that I was a young, permanently disabled student attending high school, I quickly qualified to begin receiving benefits. Despite having an active case with the Department of Human Services (DHS), sub agency Department of Rehabilitation Services (DRS), and now Social Security, I was never given an overview of the program’s specifications.

For one to fully encompass the expenses of a disabled individual one must consider medical expenses (including specialized equipment, medication, and services), cost of accessible transportation, the money necessary to employ a personal assistant, and costs associated with accessible housing. With the male medium income around mid-40k and the female medium income estimated to be around mid- 30k in this country, the incentive to work begins to diminish when considering the monetary gains versus loses.

Hidden amongst the regulations of SSI are work incentive programs and individual exceptions. In particular, the Student Earned Income Exclusion allows recipients under age 22, who regularly attend school, to earn up to $1,640 in additional income per month. Yearly maximum exclusion is restricted on amounts exceeding $6,600. Some additional qualifications do apply. Another exception includes having a documented Plan to Achieve Self-Support (PASS). The PASS allows recipients to set aside other incomes besides SSI for a specified period of time so that the individual may pursue a work goal. Under the PASS program, money that has been set aside does not qualify towards the determining of SSI payment amount.

At first glance it appears that the 2009 Federal Benefit Rate set at $674 should be more than adequate for individuals working towards employment, especially, given that the may supplement this income by applying for previously mentioned exclusions. However, these exclusions do little to assist individuals if their existence goes unbeknown to SSI recipients.

This is where the opportunity for change exists. Every recipient of SSI is assigned a caseworker. Often, these same recipients have additional client-agency relationships established at other government run locations (such as my example with DHS and DRS). It would be pertinent if these networks collaborated on client casework. At minimum, there should be regulations within the Social Security Administration that mandate employees fully brief SSI recipients on all the options available to them. I will go so far as to suggest specific emphasis on programs such as the Student Earned Income Exclusion and PASS. In promoting and fostering employment pursuit and training to disabled individuals, the US government demonstrates its support of individuals with disabilities as valuable citizens. Furthermore, it disrupts the cycle of dependence and spiraling US debt.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.

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