News Release

Analysts Criticize Kristof’s Arguments for Cutting Supplemental Security for Children with Severe Disabilities

SHAWN FREMSTAD, [email]
REBECCA VALLAS, [email]

Senior research associate at the Center for Economic Policy Research, Fremstad just wrote the piece “Nicholas Kristof Bravely Urges Congress to Cut Supplemental Security for Children with Severe Disabilities,” which states: “In Sunday’s New York Times, Nicholas Kristof tells us that he hopes ‘budget negotiations in Washington may offer us a chance to take money from SSI [Supplemental Security for low-income children with severe disabilities] and invest it in early childhood initiatives.’ In essence, we need to destroy an effective social insurance program for children with severe disabilities in order to … Save the Children!

“In the real world, these two things — basic economic supports for low-income parents caring for severely disabled children and educational initiatives — are complementary. … But in Kristof’s World, which based on his opinion piece, appears to be located in the small, all-white and staunchly Red-voter Breathitt County in rural Kentucky, economic support for parents caring for disabled children and early childhood programs only work at cross purposes. Citing anecdotal evidence from a sample of one person living there as well as the testimony of a long-standing critic of Supplemental Security who has proposed block-granting it, Kristof sensationally claims that parents are ‘profiting from children’s illiteracy’ and pulling their kids out of literacy classes in order to keep them disabled and eligible for Supplemental Security.”

Vallas is a staff attorney and policy advocate at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia. She said today:”Kristof’s allegation that low-income Kentucky families are pulling their children out of literacy programs in hopes that they’ll qualify for SSI amounts to the worst kind of demonization of the poor. It also fundamentally misunderstands the SSI program. Instead of spinning myths about a vital program, let’s get the facts straight.

“Illiteracy in and of itself is not a basis for SSI eligibility. A child must have a medically documented impairment that results in “marked and severe functional limitations” in order to qualify for benefits.  Inability to read at grade level may be an indicator of a learning disorder or other mental impairment, but on its own is not sufficient to qualify for SSI.  Likewise, doing well in school doesn’t mean a child will lose benefits. Academic performance is just one evidentiary factor considered in evaluating a child’s eligibility for SSI.

“Media-driven claims alleging supposedly widespread fraud in the SSI program have become a time-honored tradition. Yet at each juncture, they’ve been shown to be unsupported by the facts. In the mid-1990s, a flurry of media reports accusing parents ‘coaching’ their children to ‘act disabled’ for purposes of SSI eligibility caused Congress to narrow the eligibility rules and cause more than a hundred thousand children with disabilities to lose critically needed benefits. Those claims were later shown by GAO, SSA, HHS and a score of other investigations to be baseless – but the damage had already been done. Congress had already legislated by anecdote. …”

Fremstad said: “This year marks the 40th anniversary of Supplemental Security Income. Signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972 with broad bipartisan support, Supplemental Security provides basic income supplements to millions of seniors and people with severe disabilities.  Unfortunately, media coverage of Supplemental Security too often amounts to little more than recycling ‘urban myths’ about the program, especially when it comes to benefits for children with severe mental impairments, instead of accurately reporting on the real ways it improves their lives.”

Fremstad and Vallas recently co-wrote the report “Supplemental Security Income for Children with Disabilities” [PDF] for the National Academy of Social Insurance. Among their findings, Supplemental Security:

* “Reduces costly and harmful institutionalization of children with severe disabilities by supporting family-centered care.

* “Reduces poverty and increases economic security by offsetting some of the extra costs and lost parental income associated with raising a child with a severe disability.

* “Supports work and education for parents and youth.

* “Reduces financial and other stressors that can adversely affect parental well-being and can lead to separation or divorce.”