I have just finished managing a volunteer tax preparation service in conjunction with the IRS.Â The program is called VITA (Volunteer Income Tax Assistance) and is designed to assist low income persons with their Federal and state income tax returns and help as many people that qualify as possible receive the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), a cash payment for people below a specific income who have dependent children or who are childless but earned very low incomes. EITC payments for 2007 can be as much as $4,716 for a family or single parent with two children and $2,853 for one child, in addition to any normal Federal and State tax refunds.
During the years I worked as a therapist for the Department of Mental Health, my clients where almost exclusively at the bottom of the economic pyramid, many subsidizing on welfare, Social Security Disability or some other form of public assistance.Â I would periodically encounter a client whose goal in life was to begin receiving Social Security Disability for a mental or emotional disability.Â The problem with that goal was that they demonstrated absolutely no mental or emotional problems, and were physically healthy.Â Their usual explanation was that they had a friend or relative who was receiving disability for depression, bipolar disorder, or some other mental illness diagnosis, and they felt that they also “deserved” the same benefit.
The immediate motivation for this article was a couple that came into our tax preparation clinic last week.Â The married couple was in both about 55 years of age, white, and lived on the $13,000 per year she received from SS Disability.Â She has Type II diabetes, is very overweight and almost immobile.Â He appeared to be in fine condition, not overweight, alert and of average intelligence.Â He had worked for 22 years for the same textile firm and lost his job when the firm closed.Â He then collected unemployment until that ran out, tried to retrain for a new job, but failed the classes. According to him the state vocational/rehab agency told him to “give up the idea of working” and get on SSI.Â He has already been turned down twice for SSI and has recently hired an attorney that specializes in SSI cases. He had not even made an effort to find a job in the past year. The Greenville/Spartanburg area is booming, so there are plenty of jobs, but he would rather try to get on SSI instead of working for $8 per hour.
Contrast this to another couple that came to the clinic to have their taxes prepared.Â They were in their forties, married with two kids.Â She worked full-time and he had worked for the first half of 2007, explaining that he has recently been declared totally disabled due to cancer.Â He was first diagnosed with Stage 4 colon cancer seven years ago and given six months to live.Â He underwent surgery and months of chemo, recovered and went back to work. In 2007 he had a recurrence of the cancer, this time in his rectum.Â Doctors removed the tumor and part of his tailbone, gave him a colostomy, and declared him totally disabled.Â He was very positive and upbeat, stating he was allowed to earn up to $6,000 per year while receiving SS Disability and that he had already lined up a part-time job that would earn him that amount.
According to Social Security, about 7.8 million people where receiving SS Disability or SS Income in 2006, with the average monthly payment of about $978.Â The average age was 52 and about 2.6 million people of the total were disabled for emotional or mental disorders.Â I know the vast majority of the people receiving SSI are disabled and deserve the payments they are getting, but I am becoming increasingly concerned about the persons who are claiming depression or other mood disorders as a reason for being unable to work. Mild mood disorders, such as depression or anxiety, often improve when the person gets a job or even works as a volunteer.Â
Â Most first time applicants are routinely turned down for SSI and are not successful until they hire an attorney who “knows the ropes” and can get the claim approved.Â The attorney gets about 25% of the award. If you are turned down for SSI and are later approved for the same disability, you get paid retroactive to your first refusal date. Currently there is a backlog of about 750,000 applications for SSI, and in some areas of the US applicants have to wait up to two years for a first hearing.
One of my other volunteer activities is to answer the Helpline at my local United Way.Â The goal is to connect people who have various needs, usually financial, to local social service agencies.Â Virtually every week I get calls for financial assistance from seniors, primarily women, who are in dire straits.Â Last week it was a call from a 60 year-old widow who is disabled with serious heart disease.Â She had just returned home from the hospital after having open heart surgery and the next morning the local gas utility showed up and shut off her gas because she owed them about $450.Â This woman gets $383 per month from SSI and about $12 in food stamps.Â She has no family that can help her, a common problem.
A short time ago it was a call from an 89 year-old widow who was living on $600 in SS benefits and $18 in food stamps.Â She could not afford a badly needed hearing aid and was using a set of metal box springs (no mattress) as a bed.Â She was so stiff in the morning she could hardly get out of bed.Â We managed to get her a mattress though Goodwill, but a hearing aid would cost at least $1,500.Â Without the hearing aid she had lost the ability to speak clearly and ended up screaming to try to make herself understood.Â Her only relatives were a sister and her husband who were also barely surviving financially.
Every time I get a call like one of these I think about the people I have worked with who’s major goal is to get on some from of government assistance and avoid working at all, unless it is for under the table cash, of course.Â These seniors, on the other hand, often do not want help and only ask when things get really difficult.
Social Security disability is an important source of income for millions of Americans who unable to work, but I am concerned that the agencies standards are slipping, allowing too many people who should not be collecting disability to slip through the process.Â