For people asking for money, punitive SSI policies could be coming into the picture

BRATTLEBORO — Joyce Marcel's thoughtful piece offers an opportunity to address some related issues that many well-meaning readers may not be aware of.

It's reasonable to ask why some of our local panhandlers who appear able-bodied aren't working, when there are entry-level jobs around. One person's sign - "I need $ for work boots" - is one of the reasons.

Especially if you're struggling back from a tough patch in your life (possibly including eviction and homelessness), getting ready to work requires more resources than you may be aware of.

Also, some may already be working, but many available jobs are part-time and low-wage, and won't meet your needs - especially if you're trying to support a family.

But a major reason for many may be that outdated rules for federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) prevent many people with disabilities from working, even part-time, when they might be able and very much want to. (Please remember that many disabilities are not visible - and, yes, someone might be able to stand outdoors in the rain all day, but not to work more than limited hours in different conditions.)

As soon as an SSI recipient starts working at an on-the-books job, benefits that they desperately need to survive (already minimal) are at risk of being taken away. Although "work incentive" rules have changed to allow a little more of earned income to be kept without penalty, what isn't evident is that new income quickly reduces food stamps and, for people who are housed under subsidy, increases rent.

(When there's an cost-of-living adjustment in Social Security, we retirees may benefit, but SSI recipients frequently end up worse off.)

Most important, SSI benefits are also tied to Medicaid, which for many with complex health conditions may be literally keeping them alive (and, ironically, well enough to work at all).

Even if they're making enough to be much better off without the SSI income, their medical expenses (even in the unlikely event that they have good work-based insurance) may be prohibitive. Working, and losing Medicaid, can be a literal death sentence.

In addition, income restrictions also mean that in many instances, SSI recipients can never marry because their spouse's income would count toward their income limits. While this might benefit them (and society) enormously, they would lose that desperately needed medical coverage. A marriage exemption for Medicaid would fix that, but can't seem to get traction.

(And please note that all of these restrictions also affect many seniors past working age, who might be much less visible to us.)

SSI hasn't been significantly updated in over 40 years. Almost everything about the present structure is outdated and counterproductive. The SSI Restoration Act of 2021, of which Bernie Sanders is a sponsor, would go a long way to correct this.

Visit bit.ly/732-ssi-act to learn more, and if you'd like to take a meaningful step to put at least some of our local folks to work (and paying taxes!), please read this information, and contact your elected officials, both in Vermont and on the federal level.

This Voices Letters from readers was submitted to The Commons.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates