Main Content

Can’t Be Choosers

By chaoticidealism; originally posted on the blog Reports from a Resident Alien.

I hate SSI.

SSI, for those of you who are lucky enough not to know about it, is the modern equivalent of throwing coins to beggars. It is every bit as humiliating. When you try to get SSI, the process is all about telling them how horrible you are at doing things; how you can’t cook for yourself except for heating things up in the microwave; how it takes you forever to get your place clean; how you didn’t learn to shower until you were twenty; how you can’t use a bus or drive a car or order at a restaurant. Can’t, can’t, can’t. You’re a bundle of deficiency. You may or may not be accepted, and it routinely takes years.

What you get out of it is income that is a great deal less than the federal poverty limit; usually just barely enough to live on, if you are very frugal, and often not enough to live on, if you are either not good at handling money or live in an expensive area. There are homeless people on SSI, and through no fault of their own, either. Not being able to handle money is one of the reasons you might be on SSI. Horrible executive function is another. How do they expect you to handle all that paperwork, and live hand-to-mouth every month, careful to monitor every penny, when one of the reasons you might be on the plan to begin with is that you aren’t even capable of monitoring pennies or handling paperwork? I have enough trouble with it, and I’m an engineering student who handles differential equations routinely. What if I had, say, mental retardation, or a TBI in just the wrong place, or for that matter even simple dyscalculia? Yeah, they’d still expect me to do this, and kick me off if I couldn’t. Being disabled, apparently, is a full time job that some disabled people can’t do.

The nature of SSI, despite all the government’s protests to the contrary, is to trap you in the system and keep you there. You have to work very, very hard to get off it–harder than you did to get on it. If you’re disabled and you want to work, and you can’t do a simple job, and you need a degree or a certificate or any sort of schooling at all… it gets very, very complicated.

Enter the PASS plan, which is their excuse to say, “Hey, we aren’t trapping you! You’re trapping yourself! Try harder! You’re lazy!”

PASS is short for “pain and sustained suffering”… er, no, I mean, “Plan to achieve self support”. So they claim. Basically, a PASS plan is a way to use some of your income to go to school, or start a business, or get job training, so you can get out of the system.

But it’s YOUR income; not extra money you’re getting; you earned it, so why do you need the PASS?

Ah, yes. Let me introduce you to the concept of “resource limits”. Someone on SSI and Medicaid has a resource limit of $1500. That means you are only allowed to save up $1500, ever–including your major possessions, your bank account, your car, stocks and bonds, property, whatever. Your net worth is not allowed to go above $1500. This, of course, creates a great deal of anxiety for people like me, who want to have some sort of security and tend to pinch pennies until they scream so that there’ll be enough money left for emergencies. You’re not allowed to do that on SSI. I’ve taken to hoarding food, instead. I think I could be locked into my apartment and, given a water supply beyond my three weeks’ worth of bottled water, survive for something like six months. It’s highly disordered behavior, of course; but I’m just scared. Looking at boxes full of canned goods somehow reassures me. I don’t know why; if I lost my apartment, I couldn’t take them with me anyway… but… there it is. It’s irrational.

So, you want more money, right? You find yourself a part-time job; you start earning a little extra cash; that’s easy, right? It’s your money; they can’t take it, can they? But yes, they can. For every dollar you earn, your SSI payments go down. For every dollar you earn, your case for getting SSI at all becomes weaker. This is also a great excuse for sheltered workshops that pay fifty-seven cents a week (or thereabouts); people who work in them don’t lose their SSI payments.

Okay, so I lied; it’s not a great excuse. There is no excuse for government-sanctioned slavery. They just think it’s a good excuse.

PASS plans allow you to use your own money, that you earned, for the purpose of getting a permanent job. No other purpose; you’re not allowed to use it for, for example, buying lunch or paying the electric bill (this will be significant later).

As of January, I was living eighteen miles from school and driving something I politely called a “car” (it really didn’t deserve the name) to and from school. I had bought and paid for it under the PASS plan, which at that point covered small monthly life insurance payments from my deceased father. I had been driving for a year, happy that I had proven capable of learning after all (twenty-five years old is somewhat late for a driver’s license). In mid-January, I had an accident, and the car was totaled (which means here that the amount to repair the car was larger than the car’s value–in my car’s case, a stiff breeze could have totaled it, though an SUV was what actually did).

Through the next few months, I got transportation by hitching rides with people who lived nearby and worked at my school. The school hired taxicabs; so did the BVR (bureau of vocational rehabilitation). Occasionally I had to take a bus which had a route that went within four miles of school, and walk the rest of the way (resulting in a more than two-hour one-way commute, and five hours spent in transit daily). Waiting for the cabs was difficult; I never knew when they would be late and I didn’t know how to socialize wiith the cabbies. Typically for government agencies, the BVR didn’t even include a tip for the cabbies, and if you’ve ever talked to one, you know a tip can make the difference between having ramen for dinner and being able to buy the family a pot roast. (My school, on the other hand, did. Kudos to them. I think, really, you can tell what people think of each other by figuring out how they tip people when they aren’t being watched.)

By finals week, I hadn’t very much endurance left. I was having breakdowns left and right as my transportation was totally unreliable and cut into my study time; then I was often too tired to study. I eventually had to ask for an incomplete for the lab section of one course. Throughout all this time I was trying to move closer to school, because that seemed to be the only useful solution. Being within biking distance of school would mean I could control my own transportation, go home when I needed to be alone, and not have to depend on others. The problem, of course, was that anybody renting apartments close to school would raise the prices due to high demand; and this meant they were out of my price range.

With a great deal of help from Disability Services, I applied for several scholarships and was accepted. I hoped to use the scholarships to pay some of the rent on the apartment so that I could continue to attend school. I remember being so very happy to hear that I had been awarded one of the scholarships, for disabled students in the science field; all that work on my GPA felt like it was worth it. I was going to be able to move and stay in school after all. To make things even more encouraging, my grades came back as straight A’s except for the incomplete, where my test scores in lecture were also straight A’s.

It took until the week before the next term started before they finally accepted my scholarship into the PASS plan, to be used for expenses related to school (specifically, the extra rent needed to stay closer to school). I had to hurry up and move quickly. I had one day to unpack before the next term started. The whole apartment felt unfamiliar and I felt like I was staying at someone else’s place; but it was close enough to walk to school in twenty minutes and I knew I was going to get used to it eventually. The apartment is so narrow that I think me and my cats laid end-to-end would reach almost from one side of it to the other; there’s a tiny kitchen, a tiny bathroom, a tiny living room, a tiny bedroom. They even let me have my cats because they’re emotional support animals. It’s a shoebox to keep students in and it’s perfect.

Except, apparently, I’m not allowed to live here.

They denied my PASS today, after they had already sent paperwork approving it. Apparently, scholarships don’t count as “income” for the purposes of a PASS, but they do count as “resources” for the purposes of SSI. So I am not allowed to use the scholarships to pay for the apartment (even though I would be allowed to use them to pay for student housing, which is several times as expensive); but I’m also not allowed to have the money in my account to use for anything else because it goes over the resource limit for my SSI.

As things are at the moment, I stand to lose pretty much everything unless I drop out of school, find a cheaper apartment, return the scholarship, and go into debt to my current landlord for three months’ rent for breaking my lease.

See what I meant about saying this system traps you?

I have several people at school who have promised to “fight for me”, and at least one of them is experienced in tangling with SSI. I think they underestimate the power of the government; I think they underestimate just how little the system allows you to do. I think they don’t understand how little we are valued. But they seem so very determined, and I’m not very good at giving up hope.

This entry was posted in Community Services and Supports and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.
Skip to top

More information