GUEST COLUMN By RICHARD WHITNEY
Certainly more people have heard of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SVdP) than Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) — and you might doubt it, if someone told you there was a link between the two.
Although SVdP is best known for programs of direct aid to those in need, of equal concern are issues of social justice that either cause poverty or impede people from rising above it. There is such a concern involving SSDI, one often observed by Vincentians during home visits. This concern in fact, extends across the country.
According to the Social Security Administration, SSDI is generally a permanent condition in that once in the program, only about 28 percent ever again engages in paid work, and that, temporarily. The concern involves those SSDI recipients seeking at some level or in some capacity to return to work, often trying to advance into a new skill not impacted by their disability and enjoy the simple human dignity of contributing towards their own needs.
Before proceeding further, SSDI is considered a great program by those of us who have seen it first-hand help those who are unable to work. It is designed to serve as a safety net and is sometimes the only program preventing disabled individuals and their families from sliding into homelessness.
A quick look at SSDI benefits shows an average payout of $1,171 per month, with additional non-earned benefits such as unemployment, Alaska Housing, Food Stamps, etc. being allowed.
The Social Security Administration (SSA) reports one of their “highest priorities is to support the efforts of disabled beneficiaries who want to work by developing policies and services to help them reach their employment goal. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs include a number of employment support provisions commonly referred to as work incentives.”
Notwithstanding stated priorities, actual pathways out of SSDI dependency are such that “Substantial Gainful Activity” (SGA) or earned income is monitored and benefits stop abruptly if SGA continues beyond nine months in any five-year period, or if SGA income above a specified amount (generally $1,130 per month) is exceeded during any single month. This approach is, in fact, a disincentive in that a simple miscalculation of earnings either over time (nine months) or within any single month will result in full loss of SSDI, or roughly 50% of one’s total income. And this from a person already living in poverty.
During a recent home visit, a single mother with two children at home returned to part-time work and inadvertently exceeded her allowable SGA. When noted it had been exceeded, SSDI benefits were not only abruptly terminated, but full repayment was demanded for all SSDI benefits for the months where SGA exceeded the allowable amount.
We believe a fairer, more “human” pathway to individual sustainability is desperately needed. We propose a program that may involve partial reduction of base program amount based on earnings above the various specified thresholds. Reducing benefits by, say, half of earnings in excess of allowable, would result in a person (again as an example) earning an extra hundred dollars to have the base benefit reduced by fifty, while seeing total income grow by fifty as a tangible and visible reward for their initiative and hard work — and without the devastating effect of losing the full benefit instantly. A tapering strategy may produce more fulfilling and sustainable results for those in our community.
An additional benefit, of interest to taxpayers everywhere, is that the moment SSDI recipients increase earnings above current limits, cash flowing from the treasury is reduced by half of every dollar earned above the limit. As work continues and earnings increase to a livable wage, the entire benefit never leaves the treasury.
Bottom line: Those able to re-join the workforce re-gain simple human dignity, SSDI meets its goal of supporting people with disabilities, and expenditure of public monies is reduced.
The Anchorage Conference of SVdP has written the Alaskan Congressional Delegation on this, been in communication with the National Voice of the Poor Committee and encourages all community members to speak out similarly. The program as it is hurts real people. Let’s fix that.