More than 100,000 children with disabilities are being dropped from the Supplemental Security Income program because of new eligibility requirements included in the 1996 welfare-reform law.
But the number of children losing benefits may not be as high as the Congressional Budget Office originally estimated. Those officials said last year that as many as 200,000 could be affected.
“We’re going to be at the low side of the CBO figures,” said John Trollinger, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration.
About 14,000 children have already lost benefits, which average $436 a month. Approximately 88,700 more have learned that they will be denied payments, which are meant to help low-income parents with expenses related to raising a child with a disability. Congress gave program officials until next February to phase out payments for the children in question.
By narrowing the definition of a disability, the new law makes it more difficult for children with less severe physical or mental impairments to qualify for the program. Previously, children received the benefits if their disabilities prevented them from performing activities appropriate for their ages. The 1996 law allows payments only to those whose disabilities result in “marked and severe functional limitations.” (“Plan To Cut Disability Benefits in the Works,” Jan. 22, 1997.)
The changes are expected to save the federal government $4 billion to $7 billion over the next five years. The SSI program for children cost about $5 billion in fiscal 1997.
Questions of Fairness
Under the welfare law passed last year, Congress left it up to the Clinton administration to write specific guidelines for eliminating children from the controversial SSI program. The cuts came in response to a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court ruling broadening the parameters for receiving SSI funding.
Of the approximately 1 million children receiving SSI payments in 1996, approximately 264,000 were told that their conditions would be reviewed. Most of those children have mental, not physical, problems.
Some critics have charged that the new rules are not being fairly applied and that the government is using stricter standards than required.
“It’s important to recognize that something had to be done” about the rapid growth of the program, said Jay McIntire, a policy specialist at the Council for Exceptional Children, a Reston, Va.-based advocacy group. But he said he’s concerned that there is a backlash against children with emotional and behavioral disabilities.
“Most people don’t understand the problems that these kids can face,” he said. “They don’t necessarily need a more punitive system.”
Parents who are told that their children no longer qualify for SSI can appeal the decision. The American Bar Association and other organizations are also offering free legal services to families seeking to challenge a decision.