Boston Globe Series Draws Attention to Supposed Abuse of SSI

The Boston Globe published a three-part special report that focused on children who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). The title of the series, The Other Welfare, hints at the main point of the Globe's investigation -- that children who qualify for SSI when they are young often remain in the program despite an ability or a desire to work or improving medically, because their families need their guaranteed SSI benefit to make ends meet. Unfortunately, the story gives the impression that children in this position make up the majority of young SSI recipients, when in fact the program helps thousands of poor children with disabilities who would otherwise lack the resources to live a healthy life.

SSI is a federal program that helps people with disabilities and very low incomes pay for food, clothing and shelter. In most states, an SSI beneficiary who receives even $1 from the program also qualifies for Medicaid health coverage, which can be far more valuable than SSI's benefit itself. In order to qualify for SSI, a child applicant must have a physical or mental impairment that results in marked and severe functional limitations and can be expected to last for longer than one year or result in death, and she must also prove that she has less than $2,000 to her name.

In 2011, the maximum federal SSI benefit was $674 a month, although many states add a small supplement to this. In addition, SSI benefits are reduced by $1 for each dollar of unearned income a beneficiary receives (such as interest or dividends), and by $0.50 for each dollar of earned income (such as wages). Finally, the income of the people living with the beneficiary can count against the beneficiary. If the beneficiary's combined income reduces his SSI benefit to zero, he loses SSI, along with any Medicaid benefits that may come with it.

Many SSI recipients struggle every day to make ends meet -- that is why they qualify for SSI in the first place. The Globe's report chronicles the lives of a number of young SSI recipients, detailing how many of them qualified for benefits because of a diagnosis of ADHD or because they suffered from "speech delay" when they were very young. Instead of focusing on the often impossible burden placed on these young, poor SSI recipients, the Globe's investigation revealed that the Social Security Administration does a poor job of following up on the medical progress of these children, leading to numerous cases where children who once qualified for benefits are no longer medically eligible for SSI.

According to the series, this lack of monitoring by the SSA leads to the headline-grabbing problem of teenagers and young adults who feel pressured to remain unemployed, despite an ability to work, in order to continue receiving disability benefits. The Globe highlighted several local cases of parents using their child's SSI check to pay for the family's daily expenses, and the paper spoke with the children, who frankly discussed their desire to work were it not for the loss of SSI benefits. The series did little to highlight the SSA's Ticket to Work program or other incentives to move people off of SSI.

Since the investigation was published, Congress has expressed an interest in holding hearings to explore this issue in greater detail.

To read the full three-part series in the Globe, and to view supplemental materials, including photos and conversations with experts on child development and economics, click here.

Article Last Modified: 02/02/2011