In a little-noticed - but highly contentious - corner of
welfare reform, tens of thousands of children are losing their
federal disability benefits.
The cutbacks result from Congress's decision last year to
tighten the standards by which low-income children could be
declared "disabled," and thus receive federal checks.
Congressional conservatives claim the old standards were so
loose that the system was rife with abuse. They cite media reports
of children faking behavior problems to get "crazy checks."
Liberal activists say stories of fraud were isolated
anecdotes and that under new, stricter rules, children whose
families truly need help are losing Supplemental Security Income,
They also allege the cuts were budget-driven. The government
plan is to save $5 billion over five years, a projected removal of
135,000 children from the rolls, out of a total of 1 million.
The Clinton administration is caught in the middle. And in an
effort to defuse the strong emotions, the new commissioner of the
Social Security Administration (SSA), Kenneth Apfel, began on Sept.
29 a 30-day top-to-bottom review of the program. His report is due
out in the next 10 days.
"The children we're taking off the rolls have real
limitations but no longer meet the standard in the language of the
law: 'marked and severe functional limita- tions,' " says Susan
Daniels, head of SSA's disability programs.
"They will need community support, special education, state
services," she says, adding that these children will still be
eligible for public health insurance under Medicaid. "We don't want
anyone to characterize these children as fakers or malingerers."
Ms. Daniels notes that four separate studies found no
evidence of "widespread abuse" in the children's SSI program.
The average monthly payment per child is $410. The purpose of
the payments is to help low-income families cope with the costs of
having a disabled child, such as a parent's missed work time or
One aspect of the cutbacks that disturbs children's advocates
is that cutoff rates vary widely from state to state. Of the total
national caseload, about one-quarter were slated for possible
cutoff, and most assessments are completed. Mississippi has the
highest cutoff rate - 82 percent of reviewed cases. The lowest rate
is in Washington, D.C., at 36 percent. The national average is
nearly 60 percent.
As of Oct. 4, the date for which the most recent data are
available, 135,841 children had been removed from SSI. According to
SSA, between 70 and 80 percent were receiving SSI for "mental
disorders," such as retardation, psychotic disorders, learning
disabilities, and attention-deficit disorder. Many have already
appealed, and more than half of those have been reinstated - again,
at widely varying rates. …