Ever since I moved to the inner city one thing has puzzled me more than any other, and that is how my low-income neighbors get by. Assuming they aren't doing anything illegal, how do they afford their homes, their meals, their gadgets, their cars?
Few seem to work, even part time, for they are home in the morning when I leave for work, home if I stop by for lunch, and home when I return in the evening. They can't work the graveyard shift, for they keep me up half the night with their raucous music. I am left to conclude that they seldom, if ever work. Therefore, their funds must come from elsewhere. And none of them strike me as a trust fund baby.
The best I can figure is they make do with a patchwork of welfare programs. Besides, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which expires after five years, there is housing assistance, WIC (Women, Infants and Children) and Medicaid. There are food stamps, which also can be sold in parking lots for cash, and various lesser programs, such as heating assistance.
Beyond government subsidies, there is no shortage of help available from church and nonprofit groups. My mother volunteers at a pregnancy crisis center where the poor are given free diapers, clothing, and baby formula. Every day she has to turn away scammers who try to exceed their monthly allotment. Our parish sponsors a food pantry and local religious organizations provide free furniture. Meantime, nearly all of my neighbors have cable, big screen plasma TVs, and cell phones (I have none of these). From the smells that waft over our fence, many somehow afford illegal drugs.
But even with government subsidies, housing isn't completely covered. By my reckoning my neighbors must still come up with a few hundred dollars a month for rent and miscellaneous expenses.
THEN A SOCIAL WORKER friend clued me in. Many of the poor also collect federal disability benefits in the form of Supplemental Security Insurance, or "crazy money" as it is known on the streets, since one must "act crazy" to receive it. Oftentimes several people in the same household -- adults and children -- collect checks. This surprised me, since I had never for a moment guessed that my neighbors were disabled.
SSI was enacted in 1974 to supplement the Social Security benefits of disabled low-income seniors, and, as an afterthought, to help pay for the care of severely disabled children from poor families. As with any federal program, SSI has ballooned to Hindenbergian proportions, and now covers virtually any low-income person with any long-term ailment. Not surprisingly, easy-to-fake learning, behavioral, and mental disorders are the most common complaints, especially among children, making up 55 percent of all cases.
Poor adults, who in pre-welfare reform days were offered incentives to be idle and proliferant, are again incentivized to be idle and proliferant. And what an incentive it's been. Last year the Social Security Administration paid almost $50 billion in SSI benefits. More than $9 billion was paid to 1.2 million disabled children.
What's more, recipients are not required to get treatment for their or their children's maladies -- although this may be a good thing, since it is doubtless harmful for kids to take powerful psychotropic drugs for counterfeit or exaggerated symptoms.
My friend visits one such family in which four members collect SSI checks, one adult and three children. One child suffers from asthma, which would probably clear up if the mother -- who is unemployed -- bothered to clean her house. However, she has a monetary incentive not to clean or to seek treatment for her child, for if the asthma cleared up, and this was found out (an unlikely event since SSA workers routinely fail to conduct follow up visits), that could mean one less check. Also, like the now defunct Aid to Families with Dependent Children, SSI encourages dependency and is cyclical in nature. More than half who go on SSI as a child, requalify as adults. And the cycle continues.
Economically speaking, it makes perfect sense for the poor to rely on SSI. Compared to the old welfare, SSI is a plump cash cow. Here in Missouri, one of the least generous states, TANF recipients receive a measly $136 per person per month, while each SSI recipient takes home about $674. A family of four could amass $32,352 annually, not counting other benefits. Besides, since most of my neighbors dropped out of high school, there is not much they could do to earn a living other than work in fast food for minimum wage. And why put yourself through that when you can watch television all day and collect more in aid? Why bother trying to raise yourself up?
In 1988, there were 4.46 million SSI recipients. Today, there are 8 million. It is impossible to know how many of these are fakers gaming the system, but SSI recipients know no color or geographic boundary. Federal data shows that roughly half are white, half black. Nor does the phenomenon apply to all of the poor. My social worker friend visits several severely mentally handicapped persons who work menial jobs rather than accept government largess. They take pride in going to work every day and in setting a good example for their children. My neighbors would think them crazy.
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