Sign the Check, Look the Other Way

Share |
(Sacramento, CA)
Tuesday, December 15, 2009
Even though Supplemental Security Income - or SSI - is California’s second most expensive health and human services program, the state doesn’t track whether it's enough to live on or how people spend their money.
The federal government runs the SSI program and California chips in extra money to offset the high cost of living. The checks are meant to help the disabled and elderly pay for the basic necessities. But unlike most other state social service programs there are no strings attached to this money. That means the checks can sometimes be used to feed addictions.
Leroy Mapp spends his nights at the New Image Emergency Shelter in Downtown Los Angeles. During the day he goes to Skid Row. It’s a dangerous place and drugs and alcohol are readily available.
“I am uh alcoholic and you know I practically drink alcohol every day.”
Mapp’s 55 and blind. He says he has schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. Mapp admits he spends some of his SSI check on beer.
“I got an alcohol addiction, but I keep it whereas I can keep money in my pocket, I don’t really go over the boundaries.”
Another senior on SSI at the shelter is Johnmichael Logan. He’s 63 and says he’s bought crack to deal with Vietnam War injuries.
“I smoke cocaine because cocaine kills the pain in my body, so I didn’t have to time to be in pain because I was always too loaded.”
Both of these men say their SSI checks supply their income…and yet they buy alcohol and drugs.
Not everyone spends their government money like this. Sixty-one-year-old Tina Reidinger lives in a small apartment in Sacramento. Her problem is that she barely gets by on the $845 a month from SSI. Reidinger says her budget is so tight she never sees her check.
“My gas, my phone, my cable, everything is taken out automatically and I’m sent a receipt that says it has been done by the bank.”
California’s Department of Social Services oversees the state’s portion of SSI. Director John Wagner says Tina Reidinger is an example of a person in the program who doesn’t abuse the system. But for those who do, he says SSI wasn’t designed to track how people spend their checks. 
“SSI is flexible, it provides cash assistance and there is not a specific use that the recipient needs to spend those dollars on.”
During our interview, Wagner didn’t have a lot of answers about SSI. He wasn’t sure if it was his department’s most expensive program. It is. More than a million Californians receive SSI checks. I also asked Wagner for any reports evaluating if the program is working.
Weiss: “Tell me more about the audit, if audit is the right word?”
Wagner: “I don’t have any, I don’t have any background on this…yeah, we’ll have to set up a different time for that.”
Wagner says his office doesn’t track the adequacy of SSI because it’s not required in the federal rules.
But critics of the program say SSI is underfunded and the state should evaluate if the money is enough for people to live on.
“For Los Angeles County, Sacramento, San Francisco, you need about $1,000 a month for a minimum apartment.”
Steven Wallace is the associate director of UCLA’s Center for Health Policy Research. Wallace says in the last year alone lawmakers and Governor Schwarzenegger have cut SSI checks twice.
“If you look at the SSI payment it’s now after the recent cuts about $845 a month, so SSI isn’t even paying enough for a person to rent a one bedroom apartment.” 
Whether it’s abuse of the system or underfunding of the program, one state lawmaker has serious concerns about SSI. Republican state Senator Abel Maldonado, recently tapped by Governor Schwarzenegger to be Lieutenant Governor, is the vice chair of the Human Services Committee. He says, yes, SSI is federally run, but…:
“It’s easy for me to say it’s a federal government problem and they’re not doing their job but I’m a member of the state Senate and three billion dollars of California taxpayers’ money is going toward it and so I’m going to look in to it.”
SSI falls under Maldonado’s committee. He says he wants to hold a hearing on why there’s such little oversight of the program. And he wants to find out whether food stamps could be one way to help people make ends meet. California is the only state where SSI recipients can’t receive food stamps, which could amount to about $150 a month. The state estimates that more than 75 percent of SSI recipients – nearly a million people – would be eligible for the benefit. Of course, that would require more money and more resources. Two things that are hard to come by as California faces yet another budget shortfall.  


This series was part of a project for The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, a program of USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism.