His name isn’t Wyatt Avery, but when this reporter asked him, jokingly, what name he’d like to use for the piece you’re currently reading, the question left him a bit flummoxed.
“Oh, I don’t know — Katie,” Avery said, laughing the laugh of a person who really doesn’t care but feels like maybe they should humor you. A pity laugh.
As I continued to look into his story about why the government had decided to not just stop paying him the supplemental social insurance (SSI) money on which he depends, but also come after him, a homeless man, for nearly $4,000 for a mistake it acknowledged its office made, it became clear that his nom de plume would have to be Wyatt Avery.
Bear with me:
The Social Security Administration (SSA) handles a lot of data. It’s the first administration you deal with when you’re born and one of the last to close you out when you die. In between, your entire working life is tracked through the number assigned to you when you’re mewling in a hospital or swimming around in the bath tub after your very trendy water birth.
SSA is pretty good at this task; so good that it gets a little bored, and catalogues the most popular baby names for every calendar year, then breaks that information down by state, decade and even U.S.territory. You can see the change in the popularity of names over time.
This is how I came by “Wyatt Avery” — those were the 15th most popular boy and girl names, respectively, in Washington state in 2017 and frankly the first pair that sounded good together.
This detail would be of no comfort to Avery, who had to enlist an off-duty attorney this year to fight to get his $750 monthly check back after SSA cut him off. The agency also tried to recoup nearly $4,000 that it said it had overpaid him.
The reason? Avery — a man who has been homeless for years — had too much money.
Avery — a man who has been homeless for years — had too much money.
SSI is a program that helps you out if you are poor and over the age of 65, blind or disabled. To qualify, people apply to SSA and then undergo a lengthy process to demonstrate that they meet the criteria for the program. If that works, they’ll receive money each month.
It sounds straightforward: if you’re poor and otherwise qualify, the government sends you money out of the general fund. More than $57.2 billion was disbursed to people who otherwise struggle to support themselves due to age or disability. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), more than half of SSI recipients have no income outside of this monthly payment.
But SSI is challenging. It is hard to get into the program, hard to stay in the program and ultimately hard to transition away from it and support oneself should the opportunity arise. That’s because to qualify for SSI, you have to be incredibly poor; so poor that the amount of assets it would take to pay first and last month’s rent plus a security deposit in the city of Seattle would automatically get you kicked off of your primary source of income.
To qualify for SSI, an applicant can have no more than $2,000 in assets. That includes nearly everything you own, excluding your home (if you have one), your car (at least usually, according to SSA) and your burial plot.
To qualify for SSI, an applicant can have no more than $2,000 in assets. That includes nearly everything you own.
Food benefits don’t count against you either, which is one saving grace. Food benefits plus SSI meant that Avery had not quite $1,000 to sustain himself every month while he lived on the streets of Seattle. That meant he didn’t starve, but it also created one more barrier to getting indoors. On top of the usual difficulties in securing an apartment (background checks, credit checks, application fees, et al), Avery and other homeless people have a catch-22: Save up enough to get housing and lose your primary source of income in the process.
That was Avery’s problem. He had first and last month’s deposit squirreled away in the hopes of getting an apartment.
“They’re not going to check,” his payee, a person who helps with finances for people who can’t manage their own, told him. But they did.
“I had to spend $2,300 in two months,” Avery said. Because that happened, he has to wait until a housing voucher opens up rather than getting an apartment for himself.
Here’s the thing about that $2,000 asset limit: It isn’t very much. It wasn’t very much in 1984 when it was first established and was worth more than double what it is today — roughly $4,867.85 according to one inflation calculator. Income limits are even worse: According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the government hasn’t adjusted income limits for the program since 1979.
According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), the government hasn’t adjusted income limits for the program since 1979.
So a program on which the most vulnerable Americans depend hasn’t seen a key component updated in more than three decades; in a case such as Avery’s, it can actually keep people homeless.
The problems don’t stop there.
According to a report by the SSA Inspector General, the organization overall has a growing problem with vetting people for its various programs. The average processing time for a hearing to prove that you’re disabled enough to get in one of a variety of programs has increased 40 percent in the past eight years, from 426 days in fiscal year 2010 to 595 days in fiscal year 2018.
You can wait 1.6 years just to get the results back from a hearing, during which time you are still poor, often disabled and struggling. To compound the issue, pending hearings have increased 22 percent over the same period. If you don’t accept the SSA’s decision, you can appeal. But according to the Government Accountability Office, the average time that a person waited for a decision on their appeal in 2017 was 605 days.
If that wasn’t enough, you can get kicked off the program for literally no reason.
As recipients of Obamacare can attest, every program has glitches, and errors occur. When it comes to something like monthly checks for disabled people, however, glitches have real consequences. One Real Change vendor who has lived in their apartment for more than two decades received a letter in the mail telling them that their benefits would be cut off one program because the government didn’t have their current address.
One Real Change vendor who has lived in their apartment for more than two decades received a letter in the mail telling them that their benefits would be cut off one program because the government didn’t have their current address.
To repeat: They received a letter. In the mail. At their address. Saying that SSA did not have their address.
SSI is clearly a troubled program, but still one on which millions of Americans depend. The CBPP recommends strengthening it by increasing asset and income limits and leashing them to inflation, meaning that they would increase as the value of a dollar drops, and increasing the benefit allowance above $750.
That would increase the cost of the program, which clocked in at .31 percent of gross domestic product in 2017.
If that sounds expensive, the Puget Sound Business Journal found that the cost of homelessness in the region is more than $1 billion each year, and research shows that a housed person costs the system considerably less homeless person does in care.
It seems like a strong argument to help people like Avery.
Ashley Archibald is a Staff Reporter covering local government, policy and equity. Have a story idea? She can be can reached at ashleya (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Ashley on Twitter @AshleyA_RC
Read the full Nov. 28 - Dec. 4 issue.
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