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Targeting The Most Vulnerable

By Eunice Kennedy Shriver
Thursday, April 10 1997; Page A25

A little-noticed change in the Welfare Reform Law and regulations recently proposed by the Social Security Administration would cause great tragedy to poor families who have a child with mental retardation. Unless the Social Security Administration changes its mind, 135,000 poor children with substantial disabilities will lose an average of $440 in monthly cash grants, money with which their parents purchase the necessities of life and meet the added costs – including loss of parental earned income – to care for a disabled child at home. Only 20 percent of children with significant disabilities are even eligible for supplemental security income (SSI), and only half of those eligible children actually receive it.

Why did this happen? There had been allegations of fraud and "coaching" in this program. When investigators at Social Security, the Government Accounting Office and the Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General looked into allegations and anecdotes of "coaching" and fraud and abuse, they found scant evidence. The 1996 Report of the National Academy of Social Insurance summarized these various official studies as concluding that "allegations of widespread abuse or inappropriate allowances have not been substantiated."

In addition, Forbes' Media Critic, the conservative media watchdog, reviewed the variety of media stories that fueled the congressional backlash and found the stories "trading on anecdotes and depending on dubious sourc\es."

The changes were made not to eliminate fraud but to save dollars by targeting the most vulnerable of our society – the poor child with disability.

Despite the fact that in 1994 the Social Security Administration had markedly tightened the criteria for SSI eligibility so that only 30 percent of child applicants qualified (fewer than among adult claimants), Social Security is now interpreting the new legislation in the most stringent way. About 135,000 needy, disabled children will be disqualified, and many more in the future will not be eligible.

For what outcome? Poor families who already are overburdened will disintegrate. Absenteeism from jobs and unemployment will go up for single parents who cannot afford day care for their special child. Medical needs will not be met, and these families' health care costs will soar.

Key framers of the legislation did not insist upon "pervasive" limitations for eligibility. Former majority leader Bob Dole, in a floor colloquy, assured the Senate that "fine-tuning," not radical surgery, was intended.

As the proposed regulations now stand, a child with an IQ of 71-75 with self-destructive behavior would not be eligible. A child with cerebral palsy must require extensive bracing to walk, or a wheelchair, to qualify. The examples given by the Social Security Administration are extreme: children needing a major organ transplant, or a life-sustaining device or 24-hour medical supervision.

What can be done at this late date?

Parents of children with disabilities, their relatives and friends can express their outrage to their representatives, their senators and the president himself. Demand that the administration go back to the drawing board to come up with a sound child-disability test that is fair both to taxpayers and to these children.

Demand that the proposed regulations not become final and that no child be terminated from SSI until child-development experts and parents, along with the administration and Congress, find a better way to balance the budget.

The writer is founder of the Special Olympics and executive vice president of the Joseph P. Kennedy Jr. Foundation.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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