Aged and disabled cram hearing room, and worry

January 28, 1995|By Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell | Jim Haner and John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- In a cavernous hearing room, the steady murmuring of little Alison Higginbotham, 6, echoed off the high arched ceiling as the adults argued yesterday over who and how much to slash from Social Security's troubled disability aid program.

Cut 86,000 addicts, said Rep. E. Clay Shaw Jr. of South Florida.

Cut 166,000 refugees, said Stephen Moore of the conservative Cato Institute.

Cut 200,000 children, said Rep. Jim McCrery of Louisiana.

Even that wouldn't make much of a dent in the 6.3 million people collecting monthly checks from the Supplemental Security Income program -- a welfare plan for disabled and elderly poor people that costs taxpayers $25 billion a year.

But the Republican-led hearings before a House Ways and Means subcommittee brought together advocates for the aged, poor and handicapped as few other events have in recent years. Alison Higginbotham was their star witness.

"Muh, muh, muh, muh," she thrummed from her wheelchair.

Unable to speak because of a rare seizure disorder called infantile spasms, Alison is totally dependent on her family for even the smallest daily functions.

Her mother, Karen Higginbotham, testified that were it not for monthly SSI checks, Alison would have to be institutionalized.

"You highlight our problem up here today," said Rep. Barbara B. Kennelly, D-Conn. "We have a very difficult task separating out the needy from the people who are commiting fraud. . . . I'm scared to death of hurting children like Allison." The same might be said of at least a dozen other children and adults in the packed hearing room yesterday.Sitting in motorized wheelchairs, balanced on crutches, they were a constant reminder that cutting SSI must be a precision exercise -- lest the ax fall on the innocent.

But time and again, members of the committee changed the subject in midstream from children to drug addicts and scam artists, pounding home the point that taxpayers are fed up with fraud and waste.

So much attention on a group of people who represent 1 percent of the entire SSI population -- so much attention on fraud in one federal program for the poor -- made more than one observer nervous.

"It's a few people who are abusing this program that are being used as justification to cut off all the rest," said Marty Ford of the Association for Retarded Citizens. "The kind of proposals we're hearing in there today are not designed to stop fraud and waste. They're designed to stop the program."

Said James Gardner, a Shreveport lawyer and children's advocate: "The disabled community is terrified."

Inside the hearing room, Alison rolled her head back in her wheelchair and stared at the ceiling as she continued her noisemaking.

Looking down on the girl from the chairman's seat, Mr. Shaw said: "We will not forget you."

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