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GUEST BLOG: How working with Western Center helped me find my gift for advocacy

By Joseph C. Barry

Many years ago, around the time Jerry Brown was elected governor the second time, I was introduced to the world of advocacy. Due to my own circumstances, disability rights were very important to me, so I began working with Disability Organizing Group for Initiating Total Equality (DOGFITE), where I was introduced to many great disability advocates.

One of the first issues I worked on after joining the group was SSI (Supplemental Security Income). At that time, I was employed by the State of California’s Employment Development Department. I was earning a decent pay, but I also received SSI payments for months when my health barred me from working enough to earn a living wage. I was 30 years old, and had been on SSI for most of my life.

Regular W-2 employment was something I considered myself unable to do. I was worried that if I was unable to permanently hold a W-2 job, SSI benefits would no longer be available to me if I needed it.  Schwarzenegger’s recession-era cuts to SSI, and my own experiences and anxieties, prompted me to advocate on behalf of people with disabilities, especially in relation to SSI.

Shortly after joining DOGFITE, I was introduced to Mike Herald and other advocates working with the Western Center on Law and Poverty on SSI issues. From the beginning, Western Center aimed to end California’s participation in the cash-out program, which barred SSI recipients from receiving food stamps. Western Center was also working to restore funding for SSI benefits from cuts that were made during the recession. The restoration of funding was the main reason I became involved in advocacy, and I was glad to help the Western Center in any way that I could.

Initially, times were exciting. We seemed to have a lot of support in the Capitol for restoring SSI funds and ending cash-out. However, after a year or two of initial failure, I noticed a couple of recurring narratives that had become deeply entrenched. First, people said they didn’t understand enough about cash-out or how it operated, and that more time was needed to know if ending the program was actually a good thing for SSI recipients. The second narrative was that restoring funding for the state portion of SSI benefits was far too expensive for the state to do.

After seven years of being unable to get the California Legislature to budge on either issue, many advocates became disheartened.  There was even a year when a bill to restore SSI grants passed both houses, only to be vetoed by then Governor Jerry Brown.  Many advocates felt that no change would occur until after Brown’s tenure was over. Fortunately, change finally came last year during his final year in office.

In last year’s budget negotiation process, Governor Brown agreed to end California’s participation in the cash-out program. That change will allow over one million Californians who receive SSI to become eligible for food stamps, helping ease some of the food insecurity they experience living in extreme poverty.

However, the permanent ending of cash-out is a battle that continues in this legislative session. In our fight to end the cash-out program, we also advocated for a “hold harmless” clause, because now that SSI benefits can be counted as income, without the clause, some households could lose some or all of their CalFresh benefits.

The hold harmless clause we advocated for provides a supplemental nutrition benefit so those households don’t lose benefits when SSI recipients gain access to food stamps. Governor Brown included enough funding in his last budget to cover the hold harmless legislation for two years, which was a relief, but our fight this year is to make sure the clause is made permanent.

The end of cash-out in California was the first big win around SSI that I was a part of, and it renewed my personal resolve to see the grant restoration become reality. We are doubling down on our efforts to convince the new administration to fully restore the recession-era cuts to the state’s portion of the SSI grant amounts. This fight is of the utmost importance when it comes to California’s goal to address extreme poverty and to improve the safety net for California’s most vulnerable populations.

This battle is extremely important to me as a lifelong recipient of SSI. Many of my family members and peers use SSI income for necessities like food, warmth, and shelter. I know that SSI grants can mean the difference between life and death for people who are permanently unable to work or sustain gainful employment.

I am proud to say that I have aligned my personal advocacy efforts and this portion of my life’s work for the service of people with disabilities, and I am proud to continue my work with Western Center.