The Right Wing

The Terrible GOP Policy That'll Kick Thousands More Mentally Ill Homeless People Out on the Streets

The GOP's new war on the poor could result in more mentally ill people living on the streets.

Photo Credit: www.hudexchange.info

Will escalating Republican attacks on Social Security disability benefits cause an increase in homeless people across America? 

Quite possibly, say advocates for disabled and mentally ill Americans, citing the growing attacks on the Social Security Disability Insurance program in Congress and on the presidential trail. GOP threats to curtail spending on Social Security have many worried that tens of thousands of people could be pushed into the streets, primarily because they would either lose access to subsized housing or could not afford rent.

“It’s hard to assess how many homeless people would be affected by it—it’s more like how many people would become homeless,” said Shelly Nortz, the deputy executive director for policy for the Coalition for the Homeless in New York state, when asked how potential SSDI cuts could affect homelessness.

“Does that mean restructuring people’s eligibility and kicking them off like Reagan did, or making it tougher to get on,” she said, citing two scenarios. “If they review the cases, or revise the eligibility standards of disabilities, and 10 percent [of the 3.6 million SSDI recipients with diagnosed mental disorders] lose their benefits, the likelihood is that some will lose their housing.”  

“Once on SSDI, they are able to get into housing—it is a key support,” said Michael Stoops, National Coalition for the Homeless director of community organizing, saying that qualifying for the benefit opens up access to other subsidized and private housing programs. “It’s been a real lifeline to the homeless.”

But Republicans are not talking about sustaining SSDI or its impact on homelessness.

Instead, Republicans such as Rep. Tom Price, the new House Budget Committee chair, are talking up changes to all Social Security programs, including toughening eligibility to cut spending. He has used a projected shortfall in the SSDI program fund, which could mean a 19 percent cut to disability benefits next year if no action is taken, to promote longstanding GOP ideas to shrink the program.

The SSDI program has long been in the House GOP’s crosshairs. Last June, Rep. Darrell Issa, the combative House Oversight Committee chaiman, attacked SSDI as wasteful and accused judges of rubber-stamping disability benefit applications. When convening this month, the House adopted a rule that barred transferring funds from Social Security’s retirement account to the SSDI account to fix the shortfall, which is how this problem has been solved before.

On Wednesday in New Hampshire, Sen. Rand Paul, R-KY, mocked SSDI recipients, saying, “Over half on the people on disability are either anxious or their back hurts. Join the club… Who doesn’t get up a little anxious for work every day and their back hurts?”  

Anti-poverty experts say Paul's portrayal of people on disability is as clueless as it is vicious.

"Many beneficiaries are very sick, or even terminally ill – one in five male and one in six female Disability Insurance beneficiaries die within five years of receiving benefits, and beneficiaries are three to five times more likely to die than other people their age," wrote TalkPoverty.org. "Further underscoring the strictness of the Social Security disability standard, even workers who have been denied Disability Insurance fare extremely poorly in the labor market. A recent study found that among people whose Disability Insurance applications were denied, the vast majority—70 percent to 80 percent—went on to earn less than $1,000 per month."

How SSDI Cuts Could Worsen Homelessness

So far, Republicans in Congress have not made specific proposals about how they would address the SSDI shortfall, which was predicted by government actuaries and results from growing numbers of people over 50 applying for the benefit, which averages $1,090 a month, but in some cases can be quite a bit less.

As of December 2013, about 35 percent of SSDI recipients, or 3.6 million people, had been diagnosed with the following mental disorders to qualify for the program: autism (0.4 percent); developmental (0.1 percent); other childhood and adolescent disorders (0.1 percent); intellectual disabilities (8.3 percent); mood disorders (14.0 percent); organic (3.3 percent); schizophrenic and other psychotic (5.0 percent); and other (3.8 percent).

In contrast, as of January 2013, there were 578,424 homeless people across America “on a given night,” according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s annual homelessness report to Congress, published last fall. Of that number, 31 percent, or more than 179,000 people, were not staying in temporary shelters.

Thus, if Congress shrinks SSDI benefits or recipient ranks—from smaller payments to ending benefits for recipients to tougher standards for new recipients—it is easy to see how homeslessness could be a result. A one percent winnowing of SSDI’s current caseload is nearly 36,000 people.

“Studies have been done of the percentage of income received from various benefits that goes into housing,” Nortz said, speaking about homeless people who found housing. “It’s already well above 50 percent and in some cases 90 percent. For unsubsidized housing, if you take away 20 percent of their income, they no longer will be able to afford the housing they have. They will join the ranks of the most difficult-to-help people.”

And if the eligibility standards are raised for mentally ill people, that too means “more mentally ill homeless people,” she predicted.

What’s especially disturbing about the latest remarks from prominent Republicans about SSDI—from cutting benefits to mocking beneficiaries—is that this is not the first time these attacks have occurred in GOP circles. When Ronald Reagan was president in the 1980s, he cut funding for federal housing programs while at the same time many states closed mental institutions. Together, those trends resulted in thousands of people, especially the mentally ill, becoming homeless across America.

As GOP leaders promote cutting Social Security, demonize and mock SSDI recipients, and use the program as the vehicle for their first wave of reforms, one can only hope this new war on the poor will not increase homelessness. But there’s a strong possibility it will.

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America's democracy and voting rights. He is the author of several books on elections and the co-author of Who Controls Our Schools: How Billionaire-Sponsored Privatization Is Destroying Democracy and the Charter School Industry (AlterNet eBook, 2016).

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