A little-known federal program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI) fosters dependency and destructive behavior among our nation’s poor.  SSI was begun in 1974 with the intention of helping aged, blind, and disabled people of little or no economic means.  The disability part uses the same medical standards for determining disability as does Social Security, which includes disability insurance for those who pay the Social Security payroll tax.  But SSI payments come from general government revenue, not from the Social Security Trust Funds.  The SSI program includes a “child-disability” provision, in which SSI families receive extra cash for each child under 18 who meets the definition of disability.  The current maximum payment is slightly over $600 per month for each disabled child, with no strings attached.  There is no limit per family.  Theoretically, a mother on SSI with ten disabled children could receive up to $6,000 per month and spend it as she chooses.  Many families have three or four children on SSI, thus receiving $2,000-3,000 per month in addition to other welfare benefits like Medicare, subsidized housing, food stamps, and free education.  Working at a minimum-wage job would severely reduce the family income.

I worked for 35 years for the Social Security disability-determination program, which includes SSI cases, both child and adult.  For the last 13 years (1996-2009), I was a hearing officer, which entailed conducting hearings and making decisions on appeals cases of recipients who had been found no longer disabled because of medical improvement.  Over the span of my career the interpretation of what constitutes childhood disability has gradually expanded to include behavioral problems such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and vague diagnostic labels such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder.  If a child functions significantly below normal for his age level, he is found “disabled.”  For an adult, the standards are based on ability to perform substantial work on a sustained basis.  When a disabled child on SSI turns 18, his claim automatically comes up for review, and he is evaluated as an adult.

The vast majority of my hearings were conducted on “age 18” cases: children who were now considered adults and in need of reevaluation under the adult standards.  Most had been on SSI for years as children but had little concept as to why.  The mother managed the child’s check as she saw fit.  (Very few cases had a father with more than peripheral involvement in the child’s life.)  I usually interviewed both child and mother extensively, using their testimony, along with school and medical records, in making my decision.  The teen, if he cared at all about the money, knew that it was important to his mother and tried to present himself as unable to work.  Some were aware that, as a legal adult, they, rather than Mom, would get the check.  Very few had ambitions for education, job training, or eventual productive work, although most were quite capable of it.  They preferred to stay on SSI.  To an 18- or 19-year-old, $600 a month is good spending money.  Many of the girls had babies and received additional funding from other programs.

The typical hearing was with a sullen teen who resented having to rise early and show up.  I usually started by asking why he felt he was unable to work.  The most common answer was something like “I don’t like taking orders” or “I don’t like someone telling me what to do.”  I wanted to scream “Neither do I—but that’s the way the world works!”  But of course, I had to be polite and explore this “disability” in great detail.  Most had experienced almost nothing in the way of limits at school or at home and saw the unpleasantness of taking orders as a legitimate reason to avoid work and receive a government payment to do so.

The most striking thing to me, after interviewing thousands of SSI families, was the lack of any real material poverty.  These people are among the poorest in our country, yet most of the children have their own room, their own TV and cellphone, and often an iPod or some other MP3 player.  At my hearings, they wore nice clothing and shoes.  No one “looked poor.”  Nearly all appeared healthy and well developed.  A substantial portion were overweight.  This lowest rung of today’s American society has far more material wealth than I had growing up in Pittsburgh in the 1950’s and 60’s, and I was by no means poor.  I grew up in a family of at least average means with several kids to a bedroom, one small black-and-white TV for the whole family, cheap hand-me-down clothing, and no electronic gadgets.  Some in my neighborhood had far less.  By any reasonable historical standard, today’s American poor are quite well off.  By world standards they have luxuries unattainable for billions living in real poverty.  My experience is limited to western Pennsylvania, but I suspect it’s no different from the rest of the United States.

Lest anyone think this is a disguised attempt at racial disparagement, be assured it is not.  Over half of the SSI families I interviewed were white.  Black and white families exhibited similar social pathology.

In a sense “poverty” is relative, and in a free society some will have much more than others.  But the traditional poverty defined by extreme want has been virtually eradicated in the United States.  This is an amazing accomplishment, unfathomable just 40 or 50 years ago, yet ignored or unnoticed in the present.  It is something for which our country deserves great credit.

Yet a poverty of spirit exists among many, a legacy of the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, which destroyed the family structure and put millions on the road to dependency.  The father has been replaced by government payments; marriage is passé; and crime, drugs, and illiteracy flourish.  But true destitution is attainable only by willful antisocial choices like drug addiction, illegal immigration, or family neglect and abuse.

A small percentage of the SSI kids I interviewed were legitimately disabled with conditions such as mental retardation or cystic fibrosis.  The vast majority were quite capable of work, lacking only the motivation.  To continue them on SSI would be the worst thing I could do for them—abandoning them to a life of free money and no incentive to achieve anything.  Many would certainly progress to alcoholism and drug addiction, if they weren’t there already.

The American public is not aware of the destructive nature of the SSI childhood disability program.  In all but a few cases, it is not disabled children receiving much-needed help.  It is primarily dysfunctional families receiving cash payments that perpetuate their dependency.  It is time to end the cash flow and replace it with medical coverage, or nothing at all.  There is no political will or even awareness to do so at this time, so the program will continue to sow its destructive seeds unabated.