Federal commission urges limit to children's monthly SSI benefit

April 22, 1995|By John B. O'Donnell | John B. O'Donnell,Sun Staff Writer

A federal commission investigating a troubled children's disability program decided yesterday to recommend a limit on the monthly cash benefit a family can collect and to take up the question of whether the program should be removed from the Social Security Administration.

With its chairman pressing for decisions in time to influence welfare legislation now moving through Congress, the commission, meeting in Baltimore, started working its way through a list of policy options even before concluding a series of hearings it had planned to hold.

Jim Slattery, the chairman, said he expects the Senate Finance Committee to begin writing its version of a welfare bill next month. He warned the commission that it has to have its recommendations ready by mid-May if it wants to be relevant. Created by Congress, the commission originally was given a deadline of Nov. 30 to complete its work.

The House adopted sweeping welfare legislation last month that includes substantial cuts in Supplemental Security Income (SSI), $25 billion program paying up to $458 a month, plus a state supplement in some states, to 6.3 million disabled and aged poor people.

Recipients include 900,000 children who receive some $4.5 billion annually. The rolls have tripled since 1989 as Congress and the courts expanded eligibility standards.

A series in The Sun in January outlined a number of problems in the children's program.

The series told the story of a Louisiana family of two adults and seven children, all nine of whom have been declared disabled as the result of mental problems. The family receives nearly $47,000 a year in tax-free payments, plus Medicaid coverage for their health care.

Social Security said last year that there are some households that receive as much as $60,000 a year in SSI benefits.

Critics have complained that children with marginal mental or behavioral problems win benefits and that some parents coach their children to behave badly or perform poorly in school in order to get what are widely known as "crazy checks."

The House decided last month to tighten eligibility criteria by overturning a 1990 Supreme Court decision, known as Zebley, and to drop from the rolls nearly a quarter-million children who won benefits through a subjective analysis required by that ruling. It also decided to eliminate cash payments for most of the children added to the rolls in the future. Instead, they would receive goods and services aimed at coping with their disabilities.

Commission members have made it clear that they think the House proposals are too drastic. The 15 policy options offered by Mr. Slattery, a former Democratic congressman from Kansas, include consideration of some of the House proposals, including elimination of the individual assessment required by the Zebley decision.

But there seemed to be little if any sentiment among commission members for eliminating the cash payments.

They did agree to limit the benefits that a family can collect "so that payments do not rise significantly above poverty guidelines," but delayed working out details.

They also decided to impose on the Social Security Administration a requirement to review every two years the cases of children whose conditions could be expected to improve sufficiently so they overcome their disability.

And, said Mr. Slattery, the commission has to decide "who in the world is ultimately going to administer this program."

Created 60 years ago as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, Social Security was set up to administer a relatively simple program to send retirement checks to people who had "earned" them by paying payroll taxes. Congress added a program for disabled workers 21 years later.In 1972, it created SSI, a welfare program, and handed it to Social Security. Since then, the Woodlawn agency has been plagued with problems administering the complex, rapidly growing program, particularly the children's portion.

Suggesting one reason for the agency's problems, Dr. Mark L. Wolraich, director of Vanderbilt University's child development center, described what he called a "major flaw" in the program. He testified that the children's program has a different focus than the adult program. The adult program focuses on ability to vTC work while the children's program centers on the burden that a child's disability places on the family -- the justification for giving cash to the parents.

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