The first major change has to do with disability reform, more specifically Home and Community Based Services for the elderly and disabled. The purpose of this effort will be to substantially increase funding for Home and Community Based Services, which enables people with significant disabilities to live independently in their own homes rather than in care facilities. The goal is to reduce or if possible, eliminate “waiting lists” of elderly and disabled people who are qualified for home care, but who can’t get it solely because of inadequate program funding. Home and Community Based Services increases would also enable states to raise pay and benefits for home care workers, to address the worsening shortage of workers and to pay home care workers what they deserve. This was originally part of the Build Back Better plan and would have been a $400 billion investment over 10 years, a figure that was significantly reduced during negotiations, but would have been historic and monumental had it been actually passed. Lawmakers were concerned that the multi-trillion dollar spending bill would have only worsened inflation due to the continued printing of money.
The next change we are going to discuss is the effort to phase out sub-minimum wage. This practice of paying workers less than minimum wage has been legal since the 1930s. Back then, understandings of disabled people’s abilities and human rights were radically different than those of today’s standards. Now, there are much better tools and support available to help disabled people thrive in real jobs. Paying some disabled people less than legally allowed for others simply doesn’t seem justified anymore. The practice is increasingly out of date and glaringly unjust. Some states have already ended sub-minimum wage for disabled workers. There is even beginning to be some evidence that advocates of this change are getting close to pushing Congress to end it nationwide. There is however, pushback from employers and disability agencies that still use sub-minimum wage, and from some families that worry their disabled loved ones will be priced out of the job market entirely if they can’t be paid the lower rates. The counter argument is simple justice, vastly changed understanding of disabled people’s capabilities compared to decades ago when the policy was developed, and robust models for helping support disabled people who may still struggle in paid jobs. A carefully planned phase-out is the most realistic and widely accepted model. And it would put a near-term end to sub-minimum wage, while lessening disruption for disabled people currently working for below minimum wage.
Alright, and last but not least, there has been some new evidence of SSI and SSDI reform coming this year. One of those changes is to eliminate some of the SSI and SSDI “marriage penalties.” These are currently regulations that trigger benefit reductions or loss of benefits entirely if disabled people on benefits get married. Another potentially achievable goal is to expand SSI to citizens living in the U.S. territories, such as Puerto Rico. This is even more timely, since the Supreme Court recently ruled that such benefits don’t constitutionally have to be available to the territories. So now it’s up to Congress to act. Other, more fundamental changes in SSI and SSDI will take longer, and probably require quite different political dynamics in Congress. But there seems to be strong grassroots support already for real changes that millions of disabled Americans have advocated for decades — but previously without much hope. These updates are just a few of the key examples of major changes in SSI and SSDI that disabled people and advocates seek. Their goal is for people with disabilities who depend on SSI or SSDI, and Medicaid or Medicare, to be able to work, earn, and save more for themselves without losing those benefits. It’s also another way to help disabled people lift themselves out of poverty, and make disability benefits encourage rather than discourage work.
Rebecca Vallas, Senior Fellow at The Century Foundation, cites a recent Data For Progress poll, which suggests strong support for such eligibility changes, including:
80% of disabled voters
⅔ of non-disabled voters
78% of voters overall
81% of Democrats
78% of Independents
73% of Republicans
Another goal is to substantially increase SSI and SSDI’s low and historically stagnant monthly benefit amounts. These would need to be benefits increases well beyond modest annual Cost Of Living Adjustments, again aimed at lifting all recipients out of poverty. All of these changes may have strong support and make practical, humane sense. But political and structural barriers are high. SSDI is especially hard to change, because it can’t be done with “reconciliation” and therefore must pass by 2/3rds majority in the Senate. SSI changes can be passed with simple majority through “reconciliation.” But as happened with Build Back Better, even in bare majority votes one or two members can derail everything. There are still some disability activists that feel there is good reason to hope and keep working for both narrow, short-term objectives and broader, long-term goals. The one thing disabled Americans and disability activists should do is to continue to insist, once again, that candidates for Congress and other offices talk about these disability issues, and make real commitments.