Kids on welfare: The disability dilemma

Disability checks for children have become The Other Welfare, reports the Boston Globe. Low-income parents can boost their income by getting children on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), often for learning and behavioral problems such as hyperactivity. That encourages parents to get their children on drugs such as Ritalin.

Qualifying is not always easy — many applicants believe it is essential that a child needs to be on psychotropic drugs to qualify. But once enrolled, there is little incentive to get off. And officials rarely check to see if the children are getting better.

Preschoolers with delayed speech make up the fastest growing category of new SSI claims, reports the Globe. Once on SSI, they’re unlikely to leave, even if they outgrow their speech problems. Their disability status may lower expectations for their school performance.

Teens on SSI avoid taking jobs for fear of losing the payments. (Under federal law, someone who earns above a minimum amount is considered no longer disabled — even if the worker really is disabled.)

SSI for children was designed for parents raising kids with serious physical disabilities that create extra costs. But it was expanded in the ’80s. Now the majority of children on SSI are not physically disabled, reports the Globe.

The series won the 2011 Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism.

With two Mercury News colleagues, I won the Casey Medal back in the day for our welfare series. Our teen mother supplemented welfare with an SSI check for her older son, who’d been born very early and was expected to be disabled. When he was four, the pediatrician praised the mother for her excellent care, told her the boy was developing normally and reported his healthy status to SSI. Without the extra money, the mother decided to get a full-time job instead of trying to complete a community college degree. The economy was booming and she’d done well in a work-study job, so she probably succeeded. I hope. All her phone numbers went bad and I wasn’t able to reach her again. She was 19.

About Joanne


  1. If the schools didn’t make it so darn hard to qualify for speech therapy, you wouldn’t see so many parents putting them on SSI to pay for private therapy.

    Private speech therapy runs $300 per week where I live. The $700 per month SSI would only cover 57% of the annual cost of ST assuming 3 weeks off for holidays.

    Here in CA, if a child has no other issues like autism, the ed code states that child has to fall below the 7th percentile in order to qualify for an IEP because of speech & language issues. My son tested at 3 1/2 two full standard deviations below the mean in terms of his speech & language but was denied an IEP because it wasn’t considered bad enough.

    We had too high of an income to qualify for SSI but absolutely would’ve applied if we were poor in order to help offset the costs of private ST.

  2. Soapbox0916 says:

    I feel like I am in the story about the blind men and the elephant. My personal experience with SSI seems entirely different. I feel like I am like one of the “blind persons”, while the author of the Boston Globe article is a different “blind person”. Both of us can be correct about the little bit of the elephant aka SSI program, about have entirely different experiences.

    Also, how SSI can be distributed differs widely from state to state, even though SSI is federal in origin. Much of what is going on in this article is not allowed everywhere, due to state restrictions or differences in administration among states. It seems like states are really restrictive or really loose, with not much in-between.

    I work with agencies that have been desperately trying to get SSI for genuinely disabled families and they are largely unsuccessful. People are often denied, and it often seems for arbitrary reasons. Denials are really huge problem. Part of it may be the state I live in, the agencies that administer benefits such as SSI were semi-privatized , and it was royally screwed up in the privatization mess. The private company lost their contract. The state is sort of taking it back. We are still trying to recover.

    Trying for 18 months to get SSI is very much a normal waiting period even for successful clients. I am very much aware that my bias is skewed because I cross paths with the families that fall through the cracks, or lack housing stability. Successful families that don’t need help don’t come to the agencies that I work with, so I don’t see them. I see the denials and restrictions.

    It seems that the more a system is abused, or perceived to be abused, the more restrictions are placed on the families that are trying to go about receiving assistance the “proper” way. So as people that really do need the assistance are denied assistance, people with looser ethics work the system. People who work the system are rewarded.

    Disabled when it comes to assistance programs can refer to either a disabling condition or disability. There is often confusion between disabling condition and disability. The definition of disability is usually very narrowly defined, so a wider net term is needed and the wider term often used in federal program is disabling condition. For example, substance abuse to the point that a person cannot take care of themselves and cannot function independently is a disabling condition, but it does not qualify as a disability (strict definition).

    Substance abuse by itself is not enough to qualify as a disabling condition, it has to be substance abuse severe enough that it prevents the person from being able to function independently, that there is a markedly severe limitation put on them due to the disabling condition. I used substance abuse as an example because I think it is easier to understand the distinction.

    The criteria for adults is much more straightforward, because the disabling condition has to be severe enough to interfere with the adult being able to take care of himself or herself. Trying to apply disabling condition to a child is super tricky, because kids have to be taken care of by someone else. The criteria is still along the lines that the disabling condition severely limits the ability of the family to function independently. Trying to apply terms that are really meant for adults to children makes it too vague or wrong.

    The criteria is vague enough that it can be interpreted so restrictively that almost no qualifies or it can be interpreted so generously that it can be abused. I think this is the underlying problem.

  3. Richard Aubrey says:

    My sister has a son who is severely handicapped. He qualifies for SSI if anybody does. She has to abase herself before a state version of a GS1 periodically to assure the state that my nephew is really disabled. She is a very nice person but if she ever got into the space of somebody gaming the system, her inner rottweiler would be unleashed.
    I was told by a guy who helps with Social Security that they operate on a Sixty Minutes basis. If 60 has a piece about guys teeing off at Pebble Brook and laughing that they’re all on SSDI, Monday, SSDI throws umptyleven people off claim. If 60 shows a pathetic case crawling around their apartment because they can’t walk and eating dog food past use-by date because somebody messed up their paperwork, on Monday, SSDI lets a bazillion bogus claims through.
    Possible the guy exaggerates. Not by much, is my guess.

  4. Genevieve says:

    My toddler daughter has Cystic Fibrosis and now has a feeding tube for extra calories. Before the feeding tube, she qualified for no services except Early Access (which we didn’t know about at the time). However, her medical bills didn’t significantly change with the addition of the feeding tube.

    Once she received a feeding tube, we qualified for all sorts of programs. The state pushed for us to apply for SSI in order to receive health insurance assistance. We would have preferred not to, but if we wanted help with insurance, we didn’t have a choice. She also qualified for WIC, Medicaid, and Early Head Start/Head Start. We qualified for a few months until my husband received a raise and I went back to work part time (really we would have been better off if he hadn’t taken the raise/promotion, he has more work and we don’t receive SSI or reduced lunch for the older child) Now we can apply for a waiver for children with disabilities and will likely be approved after a wait. She would then be eligible for all of the other services, respite care and perhaps special nursing daycare.

    While the feeding tube formula is expensive, she was really supposed to be on a similar formula before the feeding tube. There is a cheap equivalent of Carnation Instant Breakfast and milk (what we used before the feeding tube), but it isn’t as a good a choice for her. However, if we want help with the formula, we need to be on WIC (medicaid doesn’t cover it if WIC will).

    It really seems as though the government is trying to have us use more and more services.

    We struggle with using services when really we don’t need them. There is also quite a lot of bother dealing with state workers, especially because turnover is high. At the same time, we worry about a change in our insurance. She has expensive medicine and health care equipment. If we were to lose insurance, or even have a reduction in services (a previous insurance didn’t cover several important pieces of equipment or the formula) we would have a lot of problems. We have also heard it is better for her to get on the ill/handicapped insurance as a child, in case she needs it as an adult.

  5. As one of the expert commentators noted, it would make more sense for th SSI to be designated for specific services rather than being simply extra income for the family. Some kids don’t need specific services (or those are provided by the school). Some need far more than the typical allotment ever covers. The families that go after SSI because it represents cash would be deterred; those hwo need the $$ for services would get their legitimate help. I don’t know how to handle the issue of families that need the income because public aid is harder to get now, but it sure isn’t a good thing for their children to be designated as disabled if they are not. The long term results of that are terrible.

  6. And here in Texas, it’s called “crazy money.” Get your kids to act crazy in school and get a check.

    I knew one mother who had 8 kids, and 7 were on SSI. She had better take home pay than the middle school principal.

    (And certainly me, as a special ed teacher.)

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    We need to figure this out…this is a huge waste of federal dollars that can be better spent helping the kids and making sure that those kids as many have already talked about get the services they need…

    I firmly believe that a large number (the majority? I don’t know) that are “labeled” ADHD, spec ed are not…do they need to learn social skills or a need a little more time to talk, learn to read, etc…definitely, please look at their family background to try to figure this out first…

    If we don’t how will we improve the schools and properly educate the kids…could be/probably is the schools and parent(s) are truly working against each other, the kids sees this and “drops out”…not healthy for anyone…

  8. I think putting children on Ritialin is not always the answer. I know some people who took it and it helped them though. Hyper activity is a major problem if u have it people dismiss it to easily.