It is one of two such programs for the disabled run by the Social Security Administration. The other is called DI, for Disability Insurance. Since 1956, it has let workers who have paid into Social Security's retirement trust fund draw benefits early if they become injured, ill or addicted.
Both programs are in trouble.
Envisioned as modest proposals to help a few million aged and disabled Americans, SSI and DI now cost $65 billion a year --
fueling the national debt and sapping the fund that retired Americans rely on to pay their bills.
Both are covered by the same set of 1972 disability rules.
Even then, thousands of recipients were known drug addicts and alcoholics. But the rules placed few controls on how they spent the money -- except that they could not use it to buy drug treatment until they first paid their rent, utilities and living expenses.
In a glaring contradiction written into the law, Congress deemed that letting handicapped addicts spend their checks on treatment would violate the philosophical underpinnings of the aid program: to provide for the basic needs of those who couldn't work.
That decision set blind, retarded and mentally ill addicts adrift in lives of despair because it effectively cut them off from private clinics, where treatment is generally available to anyone who can pay for it. And the prohibition has remained unchanged for more than 20 years. Further, tucked inside the law was one sentence that said addiction alone could qualify as a disabling disorder, making it possible for virtually anyone hooked on dope or booze to get a monthly check even though they have no other disability.
Before then, an addict or alcoholic had to prove that his substance abuse was so severe that it had caused disabling brain or liver damage, conditions that usually took decades to develop.
But under the 1972 rules, an addict has only to prove that his drug abuse is bad enough to keep him from holding a job -- opening the door for thousands of young substance abusers who aren't physically disabled and who probably never would have qualified for aid under the old rules.
They are men like Ernie Hernandez.
The 34-year-old heroin addict and father of two sits in the brown grass outside the San Joaquin County drug clinic in French Camp, Calif., a desolate farm town east of San Francisco.
He fidgets with his beefy hands as he describes his six years on SSI.
A one-time cannery worker and farm laborer, he has no apparent physical problem that would keep him from working. He is lucid )) in conversation. And at 6 feet tall and 225 pounds, he's built like a weight lifter.
"I admit it," he says. "I don't look sick."
But he's collecting $458 per month in SSI, which qualifies him for a $200 supplemental payment from the state, bringing his tax-free monthly take to $658 ` about the same amount that the average retiree gets from Social Security after a lifetime of labor.
"The money definitely changes you," he admits. "I just ain't going to risk losing that money by working at some minimum-wage job. Next thing I know, I get too stoned, I lose the job. Then what am I gonna do to feed my kids?
"You can tell them congressmen, if they stop SSI, the crime rate around here is going to go through the roof. It's all a lot of us have."
And Ernie Hernandez knows about crime. He says he's been using heroin and cocaine since he was a teen-ager, landing in prison at least nine times.
He'd like to get himself clean and back to work -- if for no other reason than to get his family off his back and to "be able to spend a weekend in the mountains without having to come home early because I ran out of dope."
But he has never been able to rehabilitate himself. Even when he wants it, there is little in the way of intensive treatment available.
On this sweltering day in July, he wants it in the worst way.
Jittery from a dose of black tar heroin he shot into his leg the night before, he considers his options as he fingers a small, gummy "booger" of heroin in his pocket.
'I'm really gonna kick'
Cheap and plentiful, black tar has spawned a plague of #i addiction in the cities and towns along Interstate 5 that has helped make California -- with at least 34,000 addicts on the aid rolls -- the "Disability Capital" of the nation.
"You back again, Ernesto?" asks Floyd Brown, the chain-smoking assistant director of the clinic.
"Yes, sir," Ernie Hernandez replies, hoisting himself up from the grass. "I want to get on the waiting list. I'm really gonna kick this time."
Both men know his chances of getting off heroin are nil. Since he's been on SSI, he's been in and out of the clinic so many times that they've both lost count.
He is one of 6,000 heroin addicts in the valley who rotate on and off the out-patient treatment program throughout the year. In a region that has become a hotbed of disease, many of them suffer from tuberculosis and AIDs. Three out of every four are getting disability checks, according to a recent county survey.