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How Trump's Proposed Budget Would Harm Disabled People on SSI

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President Trump’s budget director, Mick Mulvaney, recently released the White House’s 2019 budget proposal. The proposal includes deep cuts to Medicaid, as well as proposed reforms to federal disability programs. Last year I wrote a post opposing the budget cuts contained in the 2018 budget proposal. Those cuts, which would have affected Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income, would have harmed people who are autistic such as myself.

While last year’s post focused primarily on Medicaid cuts, I wanted to write this post to talk about why the budget’s proposed changes to federal disability programs, such as Supplemental Security Income, are harmful to people who are autistic or developmentally disabled. On page 113 of the budget document “Major Savings and Reforms,” the proposal lists some very concerning changes to the application process, and the way benefits are received.

One of the most concerning proposal to change federal disability programs is under, “Test new approaches to increase labor force participation,” on page 114. The budget proposes the Social Security Administration find savings in SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance by the proposal including “mandatory participation” for all program beneficiaries by doing activities such as a “mandatory job search” before an application for SSI is considered, and “time limited benefits.” One glaringly noticeable line at the end of the proposal states, “An expert panel will identify specific changes to program rules that would increase LFP and reduce program participation, informed by successful demonstration results and other evidence.” Basically the President’s budget is admitting they want to implement time limits and work search requirements to kick some disabled people off of the program.

These proposals are very concerning to me as an autistic person because they mirror work search requirements in programs like like TANF, food stamps, and those being added to Medicaid. In all of these other programs, many Republicans emphasize how they’re saving programs like SSI, and Medicaid for the “most vulnerable.” Yet, here they are trying to turn Supplemental Security Income into a time limited workfare program for some disabled people. This is not the right approach to take for autistic and other developmentally disabled people for reasons I will explain below.

Supplemental Security Income is important because it gives monthly stipends for rent, food, utility and other living expenses. In most states, receiving SSI automatically qualifies an individual for Medicaid coverage. Medicaid coverage is important for developmentally disabled and autistic people because it provides coverage for things such as doctors visits, prescriptions drugs, and home and community services which keep autistic people in the community.

While I’m sure there are stereotypes about SSI fraud, Supplemental Security Income is actually a notoriously hard program to qualify for. Most applications for SSI are denied by Social Security, and although an appeal can go to a federal judge, it can take months or even years to get a hearing. On top of that, SSI has a $2,000 asset limit for disabled people. Any change of life circumstances, such as a pay raise at work or a marriage could leave a person at risk for losing everything.

As a person who is autistic, I love working. I worked for four years as a lot technician at Home Depot, and now I work as a cashier in a busy pharmacy. Social Security has a great voluntary program called Ticket to Work that can help disabled prepare for work and find a job using state Vocational Rehabilitation agencies and private employment networks. Having a job gives me extra income and practice with social interaction. If we’re going to encourage autistic people to work, more funding and advertising for the Ticket to Work program is needed to raise awareness about its benefits.

That being said, not everyone with autism is alike. We all have different interests, stims, and levels of social interaction we’re comfortable with. Mandating a job search or time limiting benefits for someone with autism who is not ready for work, or isn’t comfortable enough in social settings to work, isn’t going to help at all. It’s going to hurt some autistic people who may lose their SSI benefits or Medicaid coverage due to an arbitrary, one-size-fits-all work search or time limit.

A better way to encourage employment among disabled people would be to build on the Ticket to Work Program with an emphasis on voluntary work opportunities and outreach about the benefits of work. Social Security needs to do a better job of this outreach, and explaining the benefits of the Ticket to Work program to SSI beneficiaries. One of the little known features of Ticket to Work for SSI is an earned income exclusion. According to Social Security the earned income exclusion works like this, “We do not count the first $65 of earned income plus one–half of the amount over $65. Therefore, we reduce your SSI benefit only $1 for every $2 you earn over $65.” If you get SSI and work, you can still get your SSI while supplementing your income with wages from work, which are reported to Social Security.

I believe mandating job search and instituting time limits will backfire, and I hope that as we saw with the disability cuts in the 1980’s, Congress will quickly realize these changes are cruel, and won’t pass them. I said this in my previous post about Medicaid work requirements, especially when they concern disabled people, there can be nothing about us without us. Why hasn’t President Trump or Mick Mulvaney asked autistic and other disabled people about reforming SSI? They haven’t, but I strongly urge Congress not to enact these harmful proposals, and instead increase funding for the Ticket to Work program.

Getty image by Idesignimages.

Originally published: March 6, 2018
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