Connor Biscan’s favorite place to relax is in the closet underneath the stairs of his family’s Wilmington, Massachusetts home. He has many things in the closet that comfort him, like oversized stuffed animals and exercise balls. As a toddler, Connor was diagnosed with autism.
His mother, Roberta, had worked as a customer service representative for a decade. After Connor’s diagnosis, she stopped working to care for him and her newborn twins.
As a single parent, it was difficult for her to pay the family’s bills. She would often stay up late to search for resources online to help her make ends meet. One night she discovered Supplemental Security Income, commonly known as SSI.
Connor’s disability and with family’s limited income meant he qualified for approximately $500 per month. The government safety net program assists those with disabilities and older adults. SSI provides money to almost one million of America’s most vulnerable kids, and in numerous states, receiving SSI qualifies them for Medicaid health insurance. Based on one statistic, the program takes approximately fifty percent of its child beneficiaries out of poverty.
The number of children receiving SSI benefits decreased significantly during the last decade. Experts estimate that hundreds of thousands of children are not receiving the assistance for which they are qualified. Connor, now a teenager, is one of those who has unexpectedly dropped off the list.
Loss of benefits can be detrimental to children and their families. Families are more likely to face financial difficulties, and there is evidence that when young people lose SSI payments, they are more likely to commit crimes to compensate for their lack of income.
Manasi Deshpande, an economist at the University of Chicago, began studying two groups of 18-year-olds in the mid-1990s. One group was old enough to avoid the new review process and keep their benefits. The other group was denied benefits. She discovered a 60% rise in criminal charges for nonviolent acts for the young individuals whose checks were stopped, which helped make up for the lost money. The likelihood of being imprisoned increased annually by 60% as well.
Academics, advocates, and administrators debate why SSI enrollment has fallen and what to do. While enrollment for older people has recently increased, this is not the case for children. According to the most recent annual report by the Social Security Administration, which manages the program, the number of children enrolled has plummeted by more than 20% for a decade, and applications are down by approximately fifty percent.
Connor started going to a residential school in 2013. Soon after he changed schools, Connor’s mom resumed working. She diligently provided SSI with her income information, and as a result, Connor’s payments were reduced.
One day, Biscan arrived home to find a letter from The Social Security Administration in the mail. Biscan was stunned to learn that Connor’s benefits were ending. Another letter demanded that Biscan repay thousands of dollars in benefits Connor had received previously. Biscan has been trying to fix the problem, but it has been three years.
The Social Security Administration cited a decline in birth rates as one factor, along with the recovery from the Great Recession, a better economy, and changes to federal legislation that have made health insurance more widely available to families. The agency also said COVID played a role. As field offices were closed for two years due to the pandemic, SSI applications decreased sharply. These factors somewhat account for the shift, according to experts, but not entirely.
According to Kathleen Romig of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, one of the main problems is money, particularly the budget of the Social Security Administration. Between 2010 and 2023, she calculated the agency’s customer service budget fell 17% after accounting for inflation, and staffing fell 16%. Last year, the agency reported staffing levels were at the lowest in 25 years.
The disability benefits system in the United States needs to be reformed. Benefits need to be increased, and the application process needs to be streamlined. People’s lives depend on these benefits.
Emanuel, Gabrielle. “Why Hundreds of Thousands of Poor, Disabled Children Are Missing out on Federal Help.” WBUR, 23 June 2023, http://www.wbur.org/news/2023/06/23/massachusetts-social-security-ssi-kids-disability-benefits.