Congress Must Not Cut SSI

In a recent Opinion column in Politico, Tim Shriver writes that Supplemental Security Income serves as a critical lifeline for children with severe disabilities, and must be preserved.

CLS advocates have been at the forefront of national advocacy to defend SSI from significant proposed cuts, as a co-founder of the SSI Coalition for Children and Families, which includes over 80 supporting organizations from around the country.

Congress Must Not Cut SSI

Americans have been increasingly alarmed by the prevalence of bullying in our nation’s classrooms and communities — especially the bullying of children with intellectual and developmental disabilities. They’re the most bullied of all — nearly three times more likely than their nondisabled peers to be humiliated and abused.

It’s no secret why they’re more likely to be victims: They’re more vulnerable, easier to target, less likely to speak up. Now, that same vulnerability is leading this population to face another group ready to push them around: their own members of Congress.

Congress is now undertaking the unenviable task of restoring our nation to fiscal health. Amid fierce partisanship, record-setting deficits, a prolonged recession and widespread cuts to nearly every budget category, Congress is considering dramatically cutting — or even eliminating — the children’s Supplemental Security Income program.

SSI is not glamorous. But it is necessary. It’s a critical lifeline for children with severe disabilities and their families. What’s at stake in cutting it is nothing less than our core values — not to mention our nation’s commitment to providing a full quality of life to those who face the most significant challenges.

Consider Sarah, a young girl born with a rare brain disorder, lobar holoprosencephaly. This is painful and tough. It has hindered her physical and cognitive development. Sarah requires near-constant medical care, frequent trips to an array of specialists and dedicated educational support in and out of school.

Sarah’s mother, Irene, has a full-time job. But she’s not making enough to cover the additional expenses brought on by Sarah’s condition. Yet Irene is able to raise her daughter at home because we’re a country that believes in the dignity of every child.

Irene receives $500 per month from the Supplemental Security Income program — from the American people — because that’s the kind of people we believe we are. It’s that simple: We help Irene and Sarah because it’s the right thing to do.

For this child and mother, the alternative is not a good one. Without the support from SSI, Sarah would likely be institutionalized, raising the specter of haunting isolation and lifelong humiliation. Or maybe Irene would resist that painful option and try to keep her daughter at home while likely bankrupting her family.

These are not imaginary options. For decades, they were the norm — and sadly, around the world, they still are. We shouldn’t need to paint draconian pictures of brutal treatment and cruel loneliness to remind Congress that we can do better.

Even in hard economic times, Americans are a compassionate people. In a recent poll for the Global Down Syndrome Foundation, 76 percent of respondents strongly supported government programs that fund medical research for people with Down syndrome, and 83 percent strongly supported programs that provide education and training for this population. We see a similar trend in local referendums around the nation: Despite difficult economic times, Americans vote by overwhelming majorities in support of government help for those who need it most.

That value goes beyond party lines and beyond election cycles.

While changes may need to be made to sustain SSI for children with severe disabilities, politicians on the left and right must — even amid adversity — reaffirm the values most important to us as a nation. They must face this economic crisis with an eye on history, reminding Americans of the sacrifices that past generations made to build the hope of a more just and inclusive nation.

Let Congress ask us all to deepen our commitment to protecting the most vulnerable — not just to maintain but to increase the hopefulness of a society that values the dignity of every individual.

We know the most common reasons why people are bullied in school and in society. It is partly fear, partly intolerance and partly a culture that condones humiliating behavior. Whether they realize it or not, Congress has the power to keep our country free of such despicable treatment for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

In the case of the children’s SSI program, we must make sure Congress is not the newest bully of people with disabilities and their families.

Timothy Shriver is chairman and chief executive officer of the Special Olympics.

This piece originally appeared in Politico on December  14, 2011.

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