Victory! Pro-Social Security Activists and Senators Halt GOP Plan To Kick 200,000 Off Benefits for Having Arrest Warrants

More theatrics and harsh proposals.

Protests by Social Security advocates and objections by Democratic U.S senators who support increasing its payments stopped an amendment to kick 200,000 people off retirement and disability benefits if those individuals had outstanding felony arrest warrants.

“Dropping the Social Security cuts from the Highway bill is the first encouraging sign we’ve seen from this Congress, when it comes to Social Security and Medicare, this year,” said Kim Wright, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare spokeswoman, speaking of the proposal that surfaced Tuesday and was deleted on Wednesday. “We certainly hope they’ve finally realized using these programs as an ATM for everything else under the sun simply won’t fly with seniors who’ve paid into these programs their entire working lives.”

The punitive proposal to slash the benefits of Social Security recipients who may have an outstanding warrant or parole violation—which in many cases is due to unpaid court fees, not criminal activity, according to senior law experts like Justice In Aging—arose as part of a 1,000-page transportation bill as a way to raise $2.3 billion for highway projects.  

The proposal has roots in the mid-1990s tough-on-crime heyday in Congress that led to a massive expansion of U.S. prisons and mandatory sentencing. As the Huffington Post reported today, it was “similar to a provision from the 1996 welfare reform law designed to stop benefits to ‘fleeing felons,’ a scheme that was broadened in 2005 and eventually stymied by federal courts. The program had ensnared some innocent people who happened to have the same names as felons and also stopped benefits to some people guilty of things such as writing bad checks in the distant past. In 2009, the Social Security Administration agreed to pay $500 million in back benefits to 80,000 people wrongfully cut off.”

The blocked proposal also was at odds with recent statements from Republicans on the need to take up meaningful criminal justice reforms, such as reduced sentences for non-violent crime. It also would have set a precedent of raiding Social Security funds for unrelated purposes, in this case transportation expenses.

As HuffPo’s congressional reporters noted, pro-Social Security Democrats were not convinced by its purported safeguards. “The measure initially allowed the Social Security Administration to continue benefits to any recipient for ‘good cause,’ but Democrats weren’t impressed. Neither was the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities, which said in a statement that the amount of money saved ‘makes it clear that the proposal means cutting off all Social Security and SSI benefits for hundreds of thousands of Americans.’

The proposal to curtail Social Security benefits for people with felony warrants or parole violations has resurfaced every few years, but legal advocates for the elderly say there is amply proof that it would not accomplish its stated goals, but instead needlessly worsen thousands of people’s lives.    

“It would not help law enforcement secure the arrest of people they are seeking for serious crimes,” explained Justice In Aging, a senior law group. “Law enforcement is already notified of the whereabouts of every person with a warrant for a felony or an alleged violation of probation or parole who turns up in the Social Security Administration (SSA) databases.”

The anti-poverty law group listed 10 reasons why the proposal was unduly punitive and would have draconian consequences:

  • “Those most likely to lose benefits are generally those most in need.
  • A significant number of people will become homeless when they lose their benefits.
  • Some people have had benefits cut off while residing in nursing homes.
  • A very high percentage of those who will lose their benefits are people with intellectual disabilities or mental illness.
  • An unusually high percentage of those who lose benefits are African-Americans.
  • Many will lose Medicare outpatient (Part B) coverage because of inability to pay the quarterly premium.
  • Eliminating what may be their only source of income does not help resolve these issues.
  • Many people never know that a warrant has been issued for them as warrants are often not served on the individual.
  • These warrants are often not easily resolved since many of those who lose benefits live far from the issuing jurisdiction.
  • SSA will have increased administrative costs for processing appeals and requests for waiver of recovery of overpayments.

“A majority of those affected who are receiving benefits based on disability fall into these categories,” it said. “Large numbers of those who will lose benefits had warrants routinely issued when they were unable to pay a fine or court fee or probation supervision fee.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet. He is the author of several books on elections, most recently Democracy Betrayed: How Superdelegates, Redistricting, Party Insiders, and the Electoral College Rigged the 2016 Election (March 2018, Hot Books).


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