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.