Restrictions on Disability Aid (And The Case For Removing Them)

Written By:

Joseph Sweeney

Publishing Date: 

January 20, 2022

Being a disabled individual in the United States presents many challenges and barriers to live out a healthy and independent life. This is because the restrictions placed on which individuals do and do not qualify for supplemental security income, or SSI, are both excessively strict and overly enforced. This results in disabled persons being forced to tie all of their finances and living conditions to their disability in a way that prevents them from enjoying many freedoms available to non-disabled individuals. Typically it is the regulations on disabled people’s aid that prevents them in participating in these ways, rather than their disability itself. [1] Too much of disability aid in the United States is based on entirely wrong at best [2] or outdated and insensitive ideas about the kinds of lives a disabled person can lead and far too prescriptive on the kind of life they should lead. For disabled persons, keeping their benefits is a matter of life-or-death.

The most obvious way this manifests is in the restrictions of a disabled person to get married. At least, not without also losing all of their SSI payments. If a disabled person marries, they are required to update the federal government and SSI office about their change in marital status. This by itself might appear an unreasonable[3] requirement, but the Social Security office will then cut the SSI payments to the disabled person if the financial assets and the assets of their spouse exceed the Social Security Office's financial ceiling. From this, any disabled person whose assets exceed a certain amount determined by the office are made no longer eligible for social security.

This is horribly unfair for disabled people for more than one reason. Firstly, it suggests a false assumption that the spouse of the disabled will be both willing and able to compensate for the disabled person's disability with just the funds they earn individually, when this is not always the case. A person's disability may require care and aid in ways other than strictly financial, such as visits with specialists, access to specialized equipment (like wheelchairs and crutches), both mental and physical therapy, and changes in housing to accommodate the disability. While a[4] working spouse may be willing to pay for all of the financial costs of these things, there is no reason for the Social Security office to assume that the spouse will be able to pay for both their own needs and for the disabled partner's disability aid.

Simply put, being married does not make a person less disabled.

It[5] also fails to address any logistical challenges that may be posed by the disability. The nature of a disability may prevent one from driving, preventing them from going to necessary doctor's appointments without the aid of the spouse, who cannot guarantee always being available if they are also working to provide for them both. Because of this, many couples that involve a disabled person make the choice to avoid marriage to maintain their social security benefits. This however leaves the couple without the legal benefits marriage confers, namely, the right of hospital visitation and power of attorney to make decisions on the other's behalf.

This not only places harsh limits on the ability for a disabled person to get a divorce, but actively encourages them to pursue divorce if they have to choose between maintaining their marriage or maintaining their disability benefits, or even qualifying for benefits in the first place, as Dominick Evans, writing for the Center for Disability Rights, demonstrates in this passage:

"[...] Those that become disabled later in life, or those who are older Americans and have similar needs to those who have disabilities, have to consider getting divorced simply to get needed healthcare and financial services."

Regarding the awkward dance that disabled persons have to do in order to maintain access to their benefits, Dominick Evans also writes:

[6]

"Those of us who qualify for these services are often caught in a catch-22. To pay the exorbitant cost of living with a disability, we need the programs that help us to pay the additional expenses. However, to remain on these programs we essentially have to remain living in poverty. For many, removing ourselves from these programs is a matter of life and death."

This helps to clearly explain the challenges faced by those living with a disability and the difficult balance between their personal lives and their qualifications for benefits.

Another issue that causes problems is that the Social Security office seems to take a strict view of people who apply for benefits and assumes malice and fraud first before error and mistakes, following a negative and ableist world-view that presupposes disabled persons are in some way lazy, incompetent, or otherwise lacking in moral character.[7] [8]

From the same article quoted earlier, Evans has another paragraph about this problem:

"Many arguments have been made stating that everyone loses access to programs like SSI, Food Stamps, and section 8 if they get married. With those arguments comes the idea that those of us with disabilities are just looking for a handout."

Indeed, even the official FAQ page from the Social Security website seems more concerned with saving money than with ensuring the best outcomes for those living with disabilities. Take this passage:

"Under the program, we investigate suspicious disability claims early, before making a decision to award benefits. In effect, we proactively stop fraud before it happens. In fiscal year 2018, with the help of state and local law enforcement, the program reported nearly $188.5 million in projected savings to the disability programs. This resulted in a return on investment of $17 for each $1 spent."

The FAQ page goes further, including a call to action for others to help prevent fraud. This paragraph makes it out as though a fraudulent social security application is an extremely important problem requiring a great deal of action to catch and prevent, even up to the point of "proactively" preventing fraud before it happens[9] [10] . While this article is not meant to defend fraud, the quoted paragraphs taken from the Social Security site place more of an emphasis on ensuring that dollars are not wasted on giving too many disabled persons too much social security, rather than ensuring disabled persons are able to get the care and [11] assistance they need. It almost borders on scammish: Social Security is made out by its office to be a precious thing that needs to be handed out carefully ... [12] [13] and this only applies because it is difficult to acquire and easy to lose. Relaxing these restrictions would help minimize the impact of fraudulent SSI applications and claims (assuming such things even exist and are not a boogieman invented to justify restrictions) by making it easier for disabled persons to reapply and update their information without fear of losing their benefits because of the changes in their living status.

An additional problem for disabled people is that the Social Security Office, before an individual qualifies for benefits, they must either not be working or their work must only pay so much, married or not. This prevents a disabled person from being able to achieve independence, as either they earn enough on their own salary to pay for all of their needs–groceries, housing, utilities, and then their disability care in addition to those–which can be a difficult amount to earn given the complexities posed by living with disabilities, or they do not make enough, either on their own or combined with a spouse's income to exceed the Social Security Office's fiscal ceiling, and have to rely on the finances of either solely their spouse or of their benefits, which may not always be enough to cover all of their needs. [14] [15]

Removing these restrictions on how much a disabled person is allowed to earn would enable disabled individuals to lead fuller and more independent lives. By not tying their access to their disability benefits to their personal income, it frees up how a disabled person may choose to spend their money, such as utilizing a savings account, using it to help out their friends and family, and covering the difference between their benefits and the cost of their care where such differences may exist. A person living with disabilities should be allowed the luxury of being able to spend some of their finances on leisure activities once they no longer have to examine all of their finances[16] [17] as being in relation to their disability. Essentially, Social Security for disabled people in its current form allows a disabled person to live, but only if they comply with a certain way of living and acting prescribed to them by the government offices.

The current system reduces disabled people to only their disability by tying their qualification for benefits so extremely tightly to their financial status. This leaves a disabled person unable to use their money the same way as able-bodied individuals, as every dollar, every cent, every financial decision, from seeing a doctor to getting married, to earning wages at work, or the decision whether or not to work at all, must be examined in terms of whether or not it disqualifies them from SSI benefits. Because of this, they lack the same financial freedoms as able bodied individuals enjoy regarding fiscal freedom, from leisure, such as going out for movies and food, to emergencies and providing aid to others, such as a family member or close friend suffering from a sudden health complication[18] . Removing these restrictions, and allowing disabled individuals to continue to receive SSI regardless of marital and financial status for the rest of their life, be they married, working, or otherwise,[19] would allow disabled individuals to lead more fruitful and fulfilling lives independent of their disability.

Sources

Evans, D. The Disability: Dialogue Marriage Equality." cdrnys.org. https://www.cdrnys.org/blog/disability-dialogue/the-disability-dialogue-marriage-equality

Bischoff, B. "Will I Lose My SSI Income After I Get Married?" thenest.com. https://budgeting.thenest.com/lose-ssi-income-after-married-30034.html

Social Security Office. "The Faces and Facts of Disability / Facts" https://www.ssa.gov/disabilityfacts/facts.html ssa.gov.