America's most wanted welfare plan

January 22, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner | John B. O'Donnell and Jim Haner,Sun Staff writers

LAKE PROVIDENCE, La. Early in her 18-year crusade to get federal disability checks for her entire family, Rosie Watson was examined by a skeptical doctor who wrote: "Patient is determined to become 'a ward of the government.' "

Determined she was.

Rosie Watson lost that particular skirmish but won the war, exploring each legal avenue until she got monthly checks from Social Security for herself, her common-law husband and all seven of her children.

Today, if you visit this bleak Mississippi River backwater on "check day," you're likely to see Ms. Watson at the post office picking up nine federal checks totaling $3,893 tax-free income that adds up to $46,716 by year's end. Few working families in the county earn more.

The story of Ms. Watson's success her single-minded pursuit of benefits and the government's on-again, off-again resistance shows how a once-modest federal program got out of control.

Originally aimed at providing life's necessities for poor adults too old, ill or disabled to work, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) now sends checks to many other groups, including children with hard-to-disprove mental ailments.

Congress, led by its new Republican majority, will begin hearings Friday aimed at cutting down to size this check-writing behemoth run by the Social Security Administration just outside Baltimore.

What's at stake for Rosie Watson is a livelihood.

She gets $343.50 a month in disability payments because she was found by a Social Security law judge to be too stressed out to work. Her common-law husband, L.C. Lyons, was awarded the same amount when a judge ruled that his 386 pounds made him too obese to work.

Their children, ages 13 to 22, lagged behind in school and scored poorly on psychological tests. Under government rules, this translated into a failure to demonstrate "age-appropriate behavior" and qualified them to get $458 each payments so widespread in Lake Providence and other communities around the nation that they are popularly known as "crazy checks."

A visitor to Rosie Watson's small bungalow would be hard-pressed to find any sign of high living.

The screen door hangs open. Soaps blare from the television. The living room overflows with worn furniture. The kitchen is caked with dirt. Roaches crawl the walls.

"I got nothing to hide," says Ms. Watson. Indeed, she and Mr. Lyons authorized Social Security to release her family's records to The Sun -- thousands of pages, a stack about a foot high -- which tell the story of her quest.

"It's done a lot for our family," she says. "The problem is, we're not able to work, and it's the best income."

There is little question about that.

Created by Congress two decades ago, the SSI program has become the nation's most generous welfare plan.

Its 6.3 million recipients include not only the aged, blind and injured, but also others more controversial: alcoholics and drug addicts who support their habits with the cash; immigrants; and 900,000 children, 61 percent of whom get checks for mental problems.

The cost of SSI more than doubled in the past five years. It is expected to increase another 55 percent by 1999.

Already it costs the federal government more than the original "welfare" program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC).

To Sen. Robert C. Byrd, a West Virginia Democrat, it is a "well-intentioned entitlement program run amok."

Rosie Watson first tried to get aboard when she was 23.

She was an eighth-grade dropout with an infant and a toddler, collecting $90 a month in AFDC, when she heard about SSI shortly after it was launched in 1974. Realizing that the new disability plan paid better than traditional welfare, she filed her first application.

She was turned down, but she would persist over the years with 17 more applications for her family. With the rules permitting unlimited applications and unlimited SSI checks to a household, there is no indication that she did anything but exercise her right to seek benefits from a government program.

The long quest

First in the family to go on the SSI rolls was her second child, Sam. It was 1978 and he was 4 when Ms. Watson filed his application. He had just been declared "mild mentally retarded" by evaluators at Northeast Louisiana University. Ms. Watson had told them that he was violent, a threat to other children.

Relying on that report, Social Security decided in June that Sam should get benefits. But, a month later, a snag developed. Concerned that checks were being handed out too casually, the agency had begun to second-guess new awards. A pediatrician reviewing Sam's file said that his "problem" was normal childhood behavior. Social Security workers tossed Sam off the rolls.

Ms. Watson applied three more times unsuccessfully for Sam, then in 1981 gave up -- temporarily.

For 27 months, she made no claims. During that period Social Security underwent profound change, the result of the worst crisis in its history.

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