How Not To Leave Money on the Table
For people who deal with trying to obtain funding for services, often the most egregious error cited is “leaving money on the table.” That includes, for people who struggle to make every dollar count (and who does not), not accessing readily available funds. For individuals with disabilities, who statistically live at or below the poverty level virtually more than any other group, this is something that really needs to be avoided. Many people with disabilities, often with the encouragement of family members and guardians, end up leaving one of the most positive resources untouched.
Individuals with disabilities, like all people, have skills and talents they could share with others. Unfortunately, many individuals with disabilities are deliberately discouraged from contributing because of “perceived” risks. That assessment of danger is often unfounded. Moreover, this belief system reaches beyond just those with disabilities, and colors the positions taken by family, friends, and (worst of all) people who have legal authority over the individual with disabilities (parents of minor children and appointed guardians for adults).
For the non-disabled person, often the first question they are asked, after their name, is “what do you do.” This “identification by what you do” is typical for all people, but for many with disabilities they have been relegated to an environment where the only response possible is “nothing.” Sometimes this is because they have been beaten down to the point where they do not know what is available for them, but often this is because people around them, particularly people who are supposed to be supporting them, have no understanding of what is available. Unfortunately, this invariably means that, for individuals with disabilities, money that could be available to them is being left on the table.
The most common reason that this money is left lying of the table is not because of any limitation of the individual with the disability. The biggest reason that these opportunities are not exercised is that people involved (the individual, family members, and guardians) do not know about the opportunities, which this post is designed to correct.
Even for the individual with the most limited “what do you do” option, the person receiving “Supplemental Security Income” (SSI) who is not a student, there is an opportunity to earn $65 per month without any impact on the SSI payment. Essentially, even at minimum wage, individuals can work about six-and-one-half hours per month and have no impact on their disability payment. For individuals with significant disabilities, such an arrangement is beneficial to the individual, giving them a sense of worth and providing funds that do not reduce their SSI payments. And, individuals who receive SSI benefits can actually work beyond that $65 level, and only have their SSI benefits reduced at a rate of $1 for every $2 earned.
For individuals who receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the ability to work is even more profound. A recipient of SSDI can earn any amount below “substantial gainful activity” (SGA), which is currently $1,700.00 gross (before taxes) per month and not have their SSDI benefits impacted at all.
For students under age 24, who are almost always on SSI, there is an even better “work incentive” which, according to a recent Government Accounting Office report, is almost never used: The Student Earned Income Exclusion (SEIE). For such students, they can earn up to $7,180 per year (not to exceed $1,780 in any single month) without any impact on SSI payments, and that is even before the $65 per month general exclusion. In effect, students under the age of 24, including high school students, are given the opportunity to work extensively without impacting their benefits at all. Moreover, earnings subject to the SEIE are not even considered for the purposes of determining whether, at age 18, the student meets the “adult disability standard” for continued disability status. Thus, for the beneficiary of Social Security, the SEIE represents a huge opportunity to access money that is typically left behind.
Also playing a role is that people think that seizing the work-incentive money off of the table is difficult. It is not. The most crucial thing to remember is that each month you need to send copies of paystubs to the Social Security Administration. It is that easy. For students claiming SEIE, you need only show that you are enrolled in school (during summer breaks, a student is deemed enrolled as long as they are enrolled for participation in school for the following fall).
Any beneficiary of Social Security who meets resistance to exercising these work incentive opportunities, or who has the Social Security Administration claim that you have failed to qualify for these work incentives, can contact Disability Rights Nebraska for assistance. Helping individuals with disabilities not leave money on the table is, in part, why we are here.
Michael J. Elsken is a Staff Attorney for Disability Rights Nebraska (formerly Nebraska Advocacy Services, Inc.), since 2002. He has engaged in a broad range of “protection and advocacy” activities for the agency on behalf of individuals with disabilities in the State of Nebraska. Much of his work involves both disability employment and education issues.