By Mike Herald
Western Center on Law & Poverty, Director of Policy Advocacy
Governor Newsom’s budget was released last week, and it is receiving well-deserved praise (including from Western Center) as an ambitious step toward creating a more equal California, and addressing the state’s poverty crisis. With bold proposals for ending childhood poverty, expanding health care access to young adults regardless of immigration status, and creating opportunities for families with children to get out of the cycle of poverty, Governor Newsom is sending a clear signal about his intention to take the state’s poverty issues seriously.
Western Center is thrilled with the Governor’s focus on ending poverty, and we look forward to the positive benefits it will have for millions of Californians, but there is one group that the new budget leaves out – Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients.
For many years, Western Center and others have pushed the Legislature and Governor to increase grants to the SSI program. All 1.3 million SSI recipients are living with disabilities, or are too old to work. With few exceptions, they are unable to earn a living and must rely on the grant they get each month to pay their rent, food and utilities.
The Governor’s new budget does not include an increase for the State Supplemental Payment (SSP), which was reduced a decade ago by the Schwarzenegger Administration to the federal minimum of $156 a month. This $77 a month reduction has never been restored, and has dropped one million SSI recipients into poverty as a result.
It has been a rough road for SSI recipients since cuts were made in 2008. In the time since, more than $11 billion has been taken from SSI recipients and put toward building the Rainy Day fund and budget surplus. The state’s budget “success” has been built on the backs of SSI recipients.
A few years ago, a coalition of groups came together to see if we could turn the situation around. The coalition included participants from a wide swath of disability, nutrition, and legal advocacy organizations, senior organizations, and SSI recipients. The coalition, known as Californians for SSI (CA4SSI), turned out for lobby days, budget hearings and committee hearings. Meetings were held repeatedly with the Governor’s office, the Pro Tem office, the Speaker’s office, and the Department of Finance urging them to restore funding for people depending on SSI to survive.
From the beginning, many SSI recipients were involved in every aspect of the coalition’s work — from building the website, to choosing messaging, to raising money — but one recipient in particular stands out, we will call him Mitch. Mitch never missed a call, never missed a hearing, and always spoke from his heart. He told powerful people even more powerful stories about SSI recipients living in their cars who had to depend on food banks every month to eat.
The coalition saw a sliver of success with a cost of living increase of $5 a month, but in spite of our combined efforts, the grants did not get restored. Frustrations began to mount inside the coalition, and many recipients felt that the coalition needed a new strategy.
We continued to lobby the state for an increase in SSI payments, and Mitch continued to show up faithfully, until one lobby day, when it became clear that he had reached a breaking point. Mitch became upset because he didn’t like the way that particular event was organized, and he yelled at staff and subsequently took to social media to criticize the campaign, which he called a failure. Despite efforts to mediate the situation, Mitch remains estranged from the coalition.
Unfortunately, Mitch was not the only SSI recipient who lost hope in our effort to advocate for SSI – many people became frustrated that we were not reaching our goal. The biggest frustration was that despite all of the hearings, meetings, and lobbying, we hadn’t accomplished what we set out to do.
People lost hope – it’s what happens when the least powerful in a society go up against the most powerful and get shut down. Mitch’s reaction was extreme compared to others, but the ache of his disappointment is shared by many SSI recipients and advocates working on the issue.
While this episode was playing out, CA4SSI embarked on a new strategy of repealing a 40-year-old state rule that barred SSI recipients from receiving SNAP food stamp benefits. With strong support from both houses of the Legislature and from Governor Brown, the rule was repealed in 2018. The state is currently working to implement the change, and by this summer, hundreds of thousands of SSI recipients will get SNAP.
This should be a happy ending, but in reality, SSI recipients have still not achieved the justice they deserve. The state is still taking $1 billion a year from SSI recipients, and while getting SNAP is good, less than half of the recipients will be eligible for food assistance. And as Mitch used to testify, there are SSI recipients who are homeless or living in cars because SSI is not enough to pay rent. For SSI recipients who receive SNAP, it won’t prevent homelessness, because SNAP can’t pay the rent.
So here we are, after the release of the boldest and most progressive budget our state has ever seen, while SSI recipients look down the barrel of year 12 of reduced grants. As we proceed into the budget revision process and head into spring, the question remains, will anything change for struggling SSI recipients, or will they once again be ignored?