Yvonne Abraham

Murky path to SSI’s fixes

By Yvonne Abraham
Globe Columnist / December 16, 2010

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And now, to babies and bathwater.

One thing is clear from Patty Wen’s spectacular, depressing Globe series on children getting Supplemental Security Income benefits: Where kids are concerned, SSI is an appalling mess in desperate need of fixing.

And soon. Because the failings of this federal bureaucracy with the big heart and not-so-big brain can actually hurt children.

So I was thrilled to hear yesterday that Representative Richie Neal, after reading the series, is calling for hearings into the issues it raises.

“I just picked up the paper on Sunday and thought, `Wow,’ ’’ the Springfield Democrat told me. “It reinforced what I’ve heard from teachers for years.’’

Wow is right. It’s hard to decide which is the most disturbing aspect of the colossal dysfunction Wen laid out this week.

Maybe it’s the fact that some parents of children with behavioral, mental, and learning issues have concluded that the one sure way to get disability benefits for their children is to put them on powerful drugs, drugs that help some, but turn others into zombies.

Or the fact that, once children are designated as disabled, the Social Security Administration lacks funding to check up on more than a tiny minority to see if they still qualify for benefits or, more importantly, that they’re getting the proper care.

Or the heartbreaking fact that some of these kids feel pressure to stay on SSI to help their families, even as they’re entering adulthood, a time when their peers are beginning productive lives.

Maybe it’s the huge constellation of people and institutions who feel pressure to have children diagnosed as disabled: not just the parents, who get cash and Medicaid for their children, but also hospitals and the companies they hire to get families out of the free care pool; the Head Start programs that lose funding if fewer than 10 percent of their preschoolers are categorized as disabled; and the state, which saves money if a poor family is shifted to the federal program.

You couldn’t construct a system more primed for abuse if you started from scratch.

No wonder Wen could just walk into a housing project and be in the midst of adults whose kids are on SSI, including some anguished parents who desperately need money and services but are conflicted over medicating their children.

It’s clear a lot should be fixed here. At the very least, the SSA needs the resources to monitor the $10 billion it gives out each year. And benefits should be more closely tied to needs a disability creates: Having a child who is quadriplegic makes it far more difficult for a parent to earn a living than having one with speech delay, for example.

But I’ve spoken to people this week who worry this will lead to a backlash against all 1.2 million children receiving SSI.

There will be a temptation in Congress to dump these families. The same people who fell over themselves trying to protect millionaires’ tax cuts will huff and puff and try to blow the house down, in the name of reducing waste and cutting the deficit, of course.

If they do, they’ll be dumping babies with bathwater.

Hundreds of thousands of families whose children have cerebral palsy or schizophrenia would not survive without the help SSI provides. Some parents might be scamming the system. But their children didn’t ask to be born into indigent families. We have to find a way to fix this without abandoning those children; otherwise it will cost us far more dearly down the line.

For his part, Neal is hopeful.

“This will provide an opportunity for bipartisanship,’’ he said. “The idea is to resist demagoguery.’’

That’s a lovely, if unlikely, idea. But the health and safety of children depend on it.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at