Monica Yant Kinney: SSI cut could be Pa.'s cruelest yet
In Chester County, disabled and elderly people can spend $20 riding paratransit to and from the grocery store. That might not seem like much, but factor in $80 just to travel for food when you live on only $600 a month. Then imagine getting by with even less.
In Chester County, disabled and elderly people can spend $20 riding paratransit to and from the grocery store.
That might not seem like much, but factor in $80 just to travel for food when you live on only $600 a month. Then imagine getting by with even less.
Beginning Feb. 1, 340,000 of Pennsylvania's most vulnerable citizens will be nudged even closer to the edge. They are the poor elderly, the blind middle-aged, the disabled young - folks in the city and suburbs who receive federal Supplemental Security Income and, like those in most other states, a modest state supplement because they absolutely cannot work.
A previously undisclosed detail of Pennsylvania's brutal budget deal calls for slashing the state's already modest $27 to $42 monthly SSI supplement by 20 percent to 25 percent. Individuals will lose $5 a month, couples $10.
For some, that's nothing, the cost of a skinny latte or a movie.
For others, it may mean skipping a meal, forgoing medical care, or worse.
"We heard a lot during the debate that no one was going to be hurt if they just cut waste to balance the budget," said Sharon Ward, director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. "But we didn't cut waste. We took food out of the mouths of the poor, old, and blind."
The view from below
In October, Gov. Rendell signed a $27.8 billion budget 101 days in the making. There was no ceremony because, as the governor noted, "there's no reason to celebrate."
The recession budget hacked away at hundreds of programs and eliminated many.
An agreement to legalize casino table games - to generating an anticipated $200 million in fees, plus untold tax revenue - garnered bold headlines. Squeezing the SSI supplement to save a mere $22 million a year did not.
Enraged advocates learned of the decision only last week.
"We know there are no hidden pots of money in this budget, but there are priorities. And the most vulnerable people in this state should be a priority," said Ray Landis, state advocacy manager for AARP. "We think it's appalling to attack the poorest of the poor."
Even officials at the Department of Public Welfare were kept in the dark about the details.
"We don't know how, when, or where the deal came from," said Linda Blanchette, deputy secretary in DPW's Office of Income Maintenance, charged with the grim task of taking money from 40,000 seniors and 300,000 disabled people, including 67,000 children.
"The average person - and I include legislators - is unaware of how little these people get," she told me. "We're talking about living on $500 or $600 a month. Until you understand that, you can't understand the impact of a $5 cut."
Undoing the damage?
Nearly a third of the state's SSI recipients live in Philadelphia, but close to 30,000 reside in the four-county suburbs, where almost everything comes at a premium.
Take Democratic State Sen. Daylin Leach's district, which spans some of the toniest and neediest parts of Montgomery and Delaware Counties.
"If you live in South Ardmore," he said, "the nearest grocery stores are Food Source and Whole Foods."
Translation: costly cucumbers, presuming you can get to them.
"Co-pays for paratransit are up to $10 one way for five to 10 miles," explained Margaret Rybinski of the Cerebral Palsy Association of Chester County, who worries that her 100 clients may run out of money at the end of a month and go without.
To that end, she's urging clients and family members to agitate during DPW's public comment period. "If there's enough outrage, we might change their mind."
It can't hurt to holler. Poor people already lost big bucks in this budget.
Maybe someone will throw them a few pennies in the next one.
Monica Yant Kinney: Public Comment
To comment on the Supplemental Security Income cuts, write to Edward J. Zogby, Bureau of Policy, Health and Welfare Building, Room 431, Harrisburg, Pa. 17105, or e-mail email@example.com. The disabled may call 1-800-654-5984
(TDD users) or 1-800-654-5988 (voice).