SSI program for disabled children gets further scrutiny in nation’s capital

A top congressional budget staffer told a gathering of public policy specialists and disability advocates that they should “come up with prudent reforms” to the $10 billion Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for disabled children if they want it to be spared more drastic measures that might be considered in these deficit-cutting times.

“I would argue that there’s a whole bunch of reasons to think the folks in this room will play an instrumental role in developing further reforms to the SSI program—and you really need to,” said Matt Weidinger, majority staff director of the human resources subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee. “Because there will be pressure to make reforms of the SSI program going forward.”

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At the forum Tuesday in Washington, D.C., to discuss this controversial program, Weidinger seemed to be delivering a cold dose of reality to those who want the status quo to remain—or even seek enhancements to the program.

According to many disablity, mental health, and anti-poverty advocates, the SSI program for children is a critical lifeline to the nation’s most vulnerable families, those who are both poor and raising children with disabilities. Critics, however, have said the program has morphed into an alternative welfare program for children with hard-to-measure behavioral, mental, and learning disabilities and includes perverse financial incentives for indigent families to acquire—and maintain—disability labels for children.

Weidinger, making clear he was not representing his committee in his remarks, predicted that reform will be led by a small group of legislators who master the steep “learning curve” of this highly-complicated program that dates back nearly four decades.

He said the program often resists change, largely because lawmakers are very careful when doing anything that might affect disadvantaged children. However, he noted that it is “more vulnerable” than in the past, largely because of the budget climate and because it’s a federal cash program paid with tax revenues.

His comments were made at a forum (available by podcast) sponsored by the Brookings Institution, a non-partisan think tank based in Washington. It comes as there is increased activity in the nation’s capital around potential changes to the federal program for indigent disabled children.

A spokeswoman for the Institute of Medicine, the nonprofit health research wing of the National Academy of Sciences, said this week her organization is in talks with the Social Security Administration, which administers the SSI program, about possibly conducting an extensive study of the children’s SSI program.

Also, the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress, is close to completing a report on the program, and it may be released as early as this month. Some of its preliminary findings were released at a congressional hearing last October.

The disability program has generated controversy almost from its inception in 1974, but heightened concerns arose over the past year in Congress after publication of a three-part series in the Boston Globe in 2010, called “The Other Welfare,” which examined the program’s growth and revealed that more than half the 1.2 million children receiving benefits qualifed for behavioral, learning and mental disorders, up from 8 percent in 1990. Children who qualify receive up to $700 in monthly cash benefits.

The Brookings event also marked the publication of a new issue of the journal The Future of Children, co-published with Princeton University, which looked at developing a comprehensive disability strategy to help the unprecedented number of American children today who are identified having special medical and educational needs. The discussion focused on a companion to the journal—a policy brief called “The SSI Program for Children: Time for Change?”—written by Ron Haskins, a veteran of welfare-policy debates who is a senior fellow at Brookings. Haskins, a former White House and congressional staffer who also specializes in children and poverty issues, also moderated Tuesday’s talk.

In his paper, Haskins outlined the history of the program and major issues surrounding the current debate, including whether the program should distribute money only to pay for services to help children cope or overcome their disabilities, rather than no-strings-attached cash benefits.

Though critics worry about runaway growth in the program, its defenders say the increases are simply due to more children qualifying: there has been a nationwide surge in children diagnosed for conditions such as ADHD, autism, and speech delay, and with the economy, more families have plunged into poverty.

Haskins predicted that sweeping reforms wished for by some critics—such as a proposal to have states take over the program and coordinate it with welfare benefits—are unlikely to happen soon.

“In part because advocates of SSI have made a strong case against reform, there is no consensus in Congress for major reforms of the program, and it seems unlikely that a consensus will develop in the near future,” he said.

He went on to identify “modest reforms” that may help address some problems, including more attention to programs to help teenagers on SSI enter the workforce and avoid long-term government dependency. (In a related development, Mathematica Policy Research, a public policy research firm, is holding an event next week to discuss how to help youth with disablities work. )

Also, there appears to be strong consensus on providing more federal money to periodically check if a child has improved to the point where he or she no longer qualifies as disabled. According to Haskins, the Social Security Administration estimated that for every dollar spent on continuing disability reviews, $12.50 is saved.