WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration has adopted regulations that will end disability checks for an estimated 135,000 poor children, outraging children's advocates who contend that the move was driven simply by an effort to save money.
At a briefing yesterday on the fiscal 1998 budget, outgoing Social Security Commissioner Shirley S. Chater announced that she had signed the regulations, which set a higher standard for ** children to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. The new rules were required by the welfare overhaul legislation that President Clinton signed into law last year.
"This is overkill," fumed Jonathan Stein, a Philadelphia legal aid lawyer who won a 1990 Supreme Court case that contributed to a tripling of the children's SSI rolls over five years.
"Congress never meant for this many kids to be cut off. They've misread Congress, and they're going to hurt an awful lot of needy kids who the average congressman, and the average man on the street, would say is disabled."
Marty Ford, an official of The Arc, an advocacy group for the mentally retarded, said: "This decision appears to have been driven by budget targets, rather than by what is in the best interest of the children involved."
The new regulations are expected to save $4.6 billion over six years.
But Rep. Jim McCrery, a Louisiana Republican who led the effort to tighten eligibility for children who receive disability aid, sounded satisfied.
"On the face of it, the regulations don't look bad at all," he said. "It looks like they are pretty much what we wanted."
Nevertheless, McCrery said he was disappointed by the administration's estimate of 135,000 children who will lose benefits. McCrery said the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office expected it to be as high as 185,000.
Social Security officials insisted that their regulations were required by the new law. At yesterday's briefing, they described the administration's proposals to restore SSI benefits to 350,000 legal immigrants who are expected to lose benefits under the welfare law. Of the 900,000 immigrants now on the SSI rolls, the welfare law would drop about 500,000.
Among those who would retain benefits under the latest proposals, the largest bloc are those who have become blind or disabled since coming to the United States.
Social Security officials also announced plans for the testing of a new effort to encourage disability beneficiaries to return to work.
"Currently, less than 1 percent of the approximately 8 million disability recipients successfully return to work each year," Daniels said as she sketched out the plan to give recipients vouchers for vocational rehabilitation.
But most of the focus yesterday was on children. About 1 million children collect SSI benefits, averaging more than $430 a month. The Republican-led Congress moved to tighten eligibility standards for children after enrollment had tripled over five years. There were widespread allegations that children with minor problems, including poor behavior, had been added to the rolls.
The surge in enrollment followed a 1990 Supreme Court decision that forced Social Security to adopt a subjective -- and, critics say, too liberal -- analysis of children who did not qualify under the agency's list of disabling conditions.
But the welfare law forced Social Security to abandon that test, which had been the path to benefits for 300,000 children.
Yesterday, agency officials described a stricter, but still subjective evaluation.
"What we have done in these regulations is move the marker a little bit," said Susan M. Daniels, an associate commissioner. "The difference here is really a matter of severity" in the child's disability.
The 265,000 current SSI recipients who won benefits through the former test were warned in November that they would be re-evaluated once new regulations were in place. Officials expect 135,000 of the them, most of them with mental or behavioral problems, to lose their monthly checks.
Since President Clinton signed the welfare law in August, Social Security has continued to accept applications from children. Some severely disabled children have won benefits, and others deemed clearly not disabled have been turned down.
The the agency has delayed action on 160,000 of the applicants.
Pub Date: 2/07/97