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In December, New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof penned a piece titled "Profiting from a Child's Illiteracy," making him the latest writer to claim that parents of children with disabilities are intentionally gaming the system in order to continue to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. In response, advocates for people with disabilities and anti-poverty crusaders are attempting to get the facts out about younger SSI recipients, and the picture that emerges is very different from what the SSI naysayers would have you believe.
SSI is a federal program that provides small monthly cash benefits to people with disabilities, including children. In order for a child to qualify for SSI, a doctor must certify that the child has an impairment or set of impairments that are the equivalent of a disabling condition that would cause an adult to receive disability benefits. Even if a child qualifies medically, he must still meet stringent financial requirements, and his family's income and assets are taken into consideration. The current maximum federal SSI benefit for a child is $710 a month.
Despite these often impossible application requirements, there are always going to be some people who try to take advantage of the SSI program. Kristofs op-ed is written from Appalachia, where he spent time with families of children with disabilities and the social workers who help them. Kristof relays an anecdote from one particular social worker who claims that parents are removing their children from literacy programs because they are afraid that if the children learn how to read, they will no longer be classified as intellectually disabled, which could lead to a loss of SSI benefits. Kristof's op-ed follows a multi-part Boston Globe report documenting the pressure faced by children with disabilities to remain on SSI when they turn 18 because their families need the additional benefit in order to survive. In response to the Globe article, Congress held hearings and the Government Accountability Office issued a report calling for reform of the SSI program.
However, most parents of children with special needs understand the vital role that SSI benefits play in the lives of their children, and now disability activists and anti-poverty groups are pushing back against the notion that SSI is rife with abuse. In a report titled "SSI and Children with Disabilities: Just the Facts," the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities explains that 98.6 percent of non-institutionalized children on SSI between the ages of 6 and 12 are enrolled in school, as are 90.7 percent of 13 to 17 year olds. The report also points out that only "one-fifth of the estimated 8 to 9 percent of U.S. children estimated to have serious disabilities" receive SSI, and that, as many qualified families know, 60 percent of initial applications for SSI benefits for children are rejected by the Social Security Administration, often leading to costly appeals.
While a small number of people on SSI may abuse the system, the Center says the vast majority of children receiving SSI need the benefit.