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Aid to Families of Children With Disabilities Exceeds Welfare Payments

A fascinating story in the Boston Globe published late last month explores how the Supplemental Security Income program may be replacing welfare payments to low-income families who have children with disabilities.

The SSI program distributed $10 billion to families in 2013, compared to $8.7 billion distributed through Temporary Aid to Needy Families, the official name of the nation's welfare program. In 2012, SSI gave out $9.7 billion, compared to $9 billion for TANF. From the article, by reporter Patricia Wen:

The expansion also comes amid a growing recognition among lawmakers and policy analysts that children's disabilities, especially harder-to-assess ones like ADHD, have become a gateway to receive the best government cash benefits available today, and this trend deserves closer study.

"SSI is becoming a much bigger part of the safety net that serves low-income families," said David Wittenburg, a senior researcher who studies disability programs at the independent research firm Mathematica Policy Research in Princeton, N.J. "It means we have to start thinking about that as a part of the whole system of supports that address poverty."

SSI started in 1974 as a way to support parents who could not work because they had to care for children with severe disabilities, Wen writes. Proponents say that doctors and mental-health professionals have become more sophisticated at identifying disabilities in children, but critics say that program now creates a perverse incentive to have a child maintain a disability diagnosis. The average TANF benefit to families is $450 a month, with wide variations from state to state, while most families receiving SSI get $720 a month per child, Wen notes in her Aug. 28 story. Adults with disabilities are also eligible for SSI benefits.

The Institute of Medicine is currently evaluating the SSI program and the process it uses to determine disabilities.  

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