Stacy Dym was at a crossroads.
Dym is the executive director at The Arc of King County, a nonprofit that serves people with intellectual and developmental disabilities and offers help managing the benefits that they receive from the Social Security Administration.
But the program, called representative payee, requires a person who is basically part money manager, part case manager. That’s a rare set of skills made more difficult by the fact that the program takes in only $43 per client each month, making it difficult to pencil out based on client fees alone.
Ultimately, Dym had to make the hard choice. She curtailed the program, limiting it to adults who participate in The Arc of King County’s programs and children.
“It’s not sustainable,” Dym said.
Trying to find alternatives for the clients revealed that The Arc of King County wasn’t the only organization having difficulty.
“It was painfully clear when we cut our program how few there are in King County,” Dym said.
Representative payee services are one of those relatively obscure programs that are crucial to the people who use them but fly under the radar for those who don’t live and breathe social services. A representative payee has incredible access to their client’s lives, literally paying bills like the rent and cutting checks multiple times per month to help people string out their supplemental social insurance (SSI) or disability checks.
A lot of representative payees are civilians with a previous relationship — often family or friends — with the people whose money they are managing. If someone doesn’t have anyone to help them, they have to find a representative payee through an organization.
But the money to pay for a representative payee isn’t enough to sustain a program and comes out of the pockets of its clients, people who are already living on the slimmest of margins. The maximum SSI payment in 2018 was $750, meaning that people who have difficulty running their own budgets lose roughly 5.6 percent of their benefits off the bat.
Simply running the program isn’t enough. Dym found herself negotiating with banks to try to waive fees on small checks cashed by vulnerable clients — sometimes as little as $7 — to save them money that they couldn’t afford to lose.
“There are a number of layers in how to make this program work,” Dym said.
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The Arc of King County isn’t alone in restructuring its representative payee program. At least one other, Compass Housing Alliance, lost city funding to run its representative payee program. Rather than shut the program down altogether, Compass offers informal services, having its case managers help clients to automate payments and help with budgeting, wrote Brittny Neilsen, spokesperson for Compass, in an email.
“Clients have a case manager though another program and can be connected to the payee services that way,” Nielsen wrote.
Not everyone is jumping out of the payee game. Christopher Paul worked as a case manager in Seattle and opened his own payee representative business called Sound Waves. It made more sense, he wrote in an email, because his interactions with his clients’ payees showed that they didn’t always know how to deal with the folks he was working with.
“I am a payee who understands clinical services and can work closely with mental health agencies to best support our mutual clients,” Paul wrote in an email. “For clients, I am more equipped to understand them and meet them where they are, as opposed to some agencies that are more rigid in how they deliver services.”
Paul is a former teacher and social worker. He works from home, which helps keep his overhead fairly low, and has a roster of approximately 70 clients. He says he could double that number and still provide the same level of service.
It took time to get Sound Waves to this point. If he could change the system, Paul wrote that he would want it to be more clear how to become a representative payee. He formed Sound Waves in October 2016, but the Social Security Administration is only now recognizing the company and allowing him to accept payments.
Dym, for one, wishes that there was more monetary support for the program. She tried to solicit financial institutions for donations to help cover the cost, but luck hasn’t been on her side. The service is critical for vulnerable people who either can’t manage their own finances or don’t know how to do so, and prevents financial exploitation, Dym said.
Unless that help comes through, The Arc of King County will have to continue its limited payee services.
“The last month around here has been hard,” Dym said.
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
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