In this Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018, file photo, the Senate Finance Committee holds a hearing on the nomination of Andrew Saul to be commissioner of the Social Security Administration, on Capitol Hill.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Back with you on The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry.
Emily Ladau: Disability is the only identity group that anybody can join at any time, and that's not a threat. That's actually something that I think is pretty cool. Anyone can become part of this community. When you're thinking about it from that perspective, why wouldn't you want to create a world that's better for disabled people?
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're listening here to Emily Ladau. She's a disability rights activist and author, and we're going to be hearing more from Emily a bit later in the show. Hers is an important insight, all of us, through age, through changing life conditions, and through family members and friends, might become part of the vibrant community of people living with disabilities. For the rest of this hour, we're going to spend a little time in this diverse community.
First, one of the biggest challenges, poverty. People with disabilities are more vulnerable to poverty, and data from the last decade show that a full two-thirds of those experiencing long-term poverty have a disability. One reason is because Supplemental Security Income or SSI, our national program for adults who've never been able to work and don't qualify for Social Security, doesn't even reach the poverty line. In May of last year, President Biden's platform included a major expansion of SSI benefits, but the reality of implementing that platform is complicated. Here to discuss is Dylan Matthews, a reporter at Vox, covering economic policy. Dylan, welcome to The Takeaway.
Dylan Matthews: Thanks so much for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Help folks to understand a little bit about why SSI exists.
Dylan Matthews: SSI exists to provide us of economic floor for elderly people and people with disabilities. It was created in the early '70s, and the central premise was that, wow, welfare for people of working age was still incredibly politically controversial as it remains today. There was a bipartisan commitment that is if you were elderly, if you were living with a disability, you should not be living in poverty. If you were in a group where you could not or were too old to work, that you should be protected from extreme material deprivation.
It's important just to provide a base, but also because it helps people who've been left out of the traditional Social Security system to get Social Security, either due to old age or disability, you typically have to work a sufficient length of time, earned a sufficient amount of money because it's an insurance program, you pay into it. SSI isn't like that. It's meant to help people who would have fallen through the cracks of that system, people who struggled to get employment much of their career, who works low-income jobs throughout their career. It's really helping people that the rest of the safety net doesn't.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Why are the payments set at a level for so many that actually doesn't even reach the poverty threshold?
Dylan Matthews: I think it's a combination of an inertia and cost-cutting by Congress that SSI, unlike Social Security, isn't directly funded through payroll taxes. It doesn't have a dedicated funding base. It's paid out of the general budget that Congress considers, and it's a pretty vulnerable program because people with disabilities often don't have a lot of political power. That's changed with the disability rights movement to some degree, but it's a vulnerable group, and in the past was easier to run rough shot over. Over the years, Congress has started to neglect it, benefits were not sometimes indexed properly to changes in lifestyle, to economic growth. You saw this degradation of benefits, and eventually, the situation we're in now where you're far below the poverty line, even if you're getting full benefits from SSI.
Melissa Harris-Perry: How likely is it that the Biden administration can create an expansion in this program?
Dylan Matthews: Technically, it's incredibly possible. They just changed the amount of money that SSI gets out to people. Politically, it's a little tougher. They're trying to put together this bill that's currently about $3.5 trillion over 10 years. That includes everything from pre-K to childcare to subsidies for clean energy to assistance for home and community-based care for people with disabilities. This is one item in a long, long list of things that Democrats want to get done. I think the tricky thing for disability advocates and advocates for elderly people is making sure that it's on that list, that it gets its slice of the package that the Democrats are putting together.
So far, the Biden administration has been a little noncommittal. They proposed this last year during the campaign. You haven't heard a lot about it from them since, but there are a lot of very vocal advocates at Congress, people like Sherrod Brown, Jamaal Bowman, he was a Congressman from New York where many of your listeners may be. There's a large push in Congress and among advocates to include this. The number I've heard from people in Congress I talked to is 50-50. It could happen, it could not, but a lot depends on what happens in the next few weeks.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sometimes the best political strategy for moving something like this is to talk very little about it in public, to actually move it through with all of these other big items that you're talking about. Is that the political calculus here, or is it that this is the thing that needs more amplification and more public understanding?
Dylan Matthews: It's a great question. I think there are good arguments within advocacy on both sides of it. It's, in some ways, an ideal topic for Secret Congress, as that process is sometimes called, in that it's not on the top of many voters' minds, but a small and dedicated group of advocates care very, very deeply about it. They might be able to attach it to bigger things. At the same time, the disability rights community, I think, especially in 2017, when Congress was considering repealing the Affordable Care Act, it was very, very public.
They were doing sit-ins, and Congress getting arrested really trying to publicly embarrass Republican members of Congress who might pull Medicare benefits away from them and millions of other Americans. They got a lot of results from that. I think if you talk to people in the healthcare world, they will give the disability community an incredible amount of credit for efforts to repeal ObamaCare failing in 2017. I'm of two minds on this, that on the one hand, there's a path that's quiet, but on the other hand, the disability rights movement is a really incredible force. When it's very active and loud, it can get a lot of stuff done.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dylan Matthews is a reporter at Vox, covering economic policy and also apparently covering Secret Congress. Dylan, thank you so much for joining us.
Dylan Matthews: My pleasure. Thank you for having me.
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