Ehrlich bill would raise earning limit for blind who get disability benefits

Advocates suggest link between cutoffs for elderly, visually impaired

April 28, 1999|By Jennifer Sullivan | Jennifer Sullivan,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Southwest Baltimore's Maurice Peret has a new baby and a new job. But at the beginning of the year, the government stopped sending him a large chunk of his income.

Peret, 34, who is blind, is one of a growing number of visually impaired people who find themselves limited by a federal restriction on their earnings.

Because he took a job that paid more than the annual limit for Americans receiving Social Security disability benefits, he was dropped from federal rolls.

To raise blind Americans' earning threshold, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona introduced a bill in January that would put their earning limit at the same level set for senior citizens. That was the formula used until 1996, when Congress raised earning limits for the elderly but not the blind.

Today, Maryland Republican Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. will introduce a similar bill. Peret will be among those standing with the congressman at a news conference to discuss the measure.

According to the National Federation of the Blind, blind Americans will earn about $14,000 in benefits by 2002 -- compared with about $30,000 for senior citizens.

The 1999 earning limit for the blind is $1,110 a month, in addition to the federal stipend -- and making a penny more means loss of benefits.

"Unemployment among the blind is at 70 percent, while there is great prosperity in the country," said Ehrlich, who is introducing the Blind Empowerment Act, nearly identical to McCain's Blind Person's Earnings Equity Act.

He has the support of all of Maryland's representatives, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Baltimore-based National Federation of the Blind, and Blind Services and Industries of Maryland. Both Democratic Maryland senators, Barbara A. Mikulski and Paul S. Sarbanes, are among the 20 Senate members who co-sponsored McCain's bill.

Peret, a native of Washington, says he bounced from working on an assembly line in an Iowa vending machine factory to loading trucks to pressing shirts in a West Virginia garment factory.

Mindful of the earnings limit, he held only part-time jobs so he could stay on the federal rolls and retain his disability benefits, he said.

"A lot of jobs I held weren't secure. I needed a fallback because of frequent layoffs," Peret said. "By working part time and accepting part-time wages and retaining benefits, a person could earn a decent living, whereas working full time might actually result in a cut in income."

In January, when Peret was hired to teach basic computer training courses at Blind Services and Industries' Southwest Baltimore headquarters, he reported the income as required and was promptly dropped from federal rolls.

He now earns his highest wage ever, but he takes home less money than he did 10 years ago, when he worked in a garment factory while receiving federal benefits.

Peret says Ehrlich's bill will help the blind get on their feet.

"Blind people are really looking for a measure of equality. We want equal opportunities to work," he said. "Ideally, people would want to be in a situation where they are no longer receiving benefits. We want to get to that point so we can get a fair start."

Although Peret says he makes enough for him, his wife and their 7-week-old son to live on, he has blind friends who never apply for full-time positions because they take home more money retaining their federal disability status and working part time or earning minimum wage.

Northeast Baltimore resident Eileen Rivera is a graduate of Harvard University and the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. But she said she needs extra funds to help raise her 7-year-old daughter and to get her business off the ground.

The company, A Better View, is an advertising agency that helps companies market their products to low-vision audiences.

Rivera, whose vision is severely impaired, also works as a marketing consultant for Voice of the Diabetic, a magazine for Americans with diabetes. She has to hire people to read business information to her and to help her daughter with her homework.

If she makes more than $13,320 a year, Rivera, a single mother with a family history of kidney failure, could lose her monthly stipend and health insurance.

"If I wasn't single, sure I would be working full time, just like I did when I was working at Johns Hopkins," said Rivera, who from 1988 to 1991 was administrative director of the hospital's Wilmer Vision Research Center. "But I can't be a super executive and a single mother at the same time."

Rivera said, "The bill is going to give us more freedom to earn more and cover the expenses of living."

Both Ehrlich and McCain supported similar measures last year. Ehrlich's died in the House Ways and Means Committee, while McCain's was killed by the Senate Finance Committee.

James Gashel, director of governmental affairs for the National Federation of the Blind, said that without the bills' passage, the visually impaired who earn more than allowed will be asked to repay the difference to the government.

"It's not uncommon to see letters that say, `You owe $30,000. Please send a check in the envelope enclosed,' " he said.

Peret said he received two letters from the federal government, one dropping his disability benefits and another requesting $1,000 he owed. He paid it.

Gashel, who has twice worked to link benefits for the blind and seniors, said the fact that there are fewer blind people -- the country has nearly 36 million seniors to 750,000 blind people -- may have made it easier for lawmakers to bypass the blind.

But, he maintained, they are just as dependent upon the income.

"If you have limitations on one group, you might as well have them on both," he said.

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