April 16, 2010

The term “deserving poor” goes all the way back to the 1500′s, to the “poor laws” of Queen Elizabeth I.  Those laws prescribed different treatment for people who could not help being poor (widows, orphans, people with disabilities), and. the “undeserving poor”:  drunkards, debtors, and other people whose bad choices made them poor.

The oldest laws I know of defining and protecting the deserving poor are in the Book of Leviticus, and dramatized in the Book of Ruth.  Landowners MAY NOT harvest the corners of their fields, or pick up any harvest that falls on the ground. Those gleanings belong to the “widow, the orphan, and the stranger.”

Ruth and her mother-in-law Naomi were widows.  Ruth was also a stranger, a Moabite woman who married an Israelite, and lived with him in Israel until he died. Ruth and Naomi followed the harvesters, and subsisted on the gleanings of the fields.  God’s law told Boaz, the farmer, he had to help the deserving poor live with dignity.

The Bible even gave Boaz a minimum amount required to meet his responsibility.  The people who gathered the gleanings were not taking charity, which would be degrading, just gathering what was already theirs by law – the first “entitlement program.”

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is a U.S. government program for the deserving poor, people unable to work because of disabilities.

To qualify for benefits, you need detailed letters from all your doctors, and other documentation.  You must be unable to do any kind of work.  You must be unable to work for a year before you can apply.  It can take up to two years from the time you apply to get a final decision on whether qualify for benefits.

It usually involves a couple of appeals, and most people need representation at some point.  During that time, you must live by your wits because your claim is dismissed if you do any work.

If you finally do qualify, you get a big check for all your benefits, retroactive to the day you applied.  Reputable disability advocates, who help people with their appeals, take 25 to 33 percent of that big check as payment for their services, if and when the check comes.  Benefits typically run between $1,300 and $1,700 per month.

Everyone on SSDI paid insurance premiums to the Social Security System through their payroll taxes for at least five quarters.  At some point, they are allowed to work part-time, and earn up to $800-plus per month and still collect their full monthly SSDI benefit.  That part-time paid work can bring some dignity to a life of what would be degrading poverty and loss of self-worth.

Certain out-of-pocket expenses like co-pays can be added to that allowable monthly income.  After people are on benefits for two years, they become eligible for Medicare.  Medicare Part B premiums are automatically deducted from the monthly benefit check.  That makes two years after you qualify for benefits, plus the year before you can apply, and the year(s) it takes to get a decision on your eligibility. That’s a long time for someone too disabled to work, whose medical expenses are usually high, to live without health insurance, or pay for his own with no income.  COBRA plans from your former job are very expensive for people with no income.

Every couple of years, Social Security reviews each case to see if the person is still unable to work.  If they are in doubt, they stop the person’s monthly checks, leaving him with no income, until they decide.  With all the hoops and hurdles, periodic reviews, two years with no income, plus two more without health insurance, fraud is almost impossible, and not worth the effort.

So when I hear people who have never been sick or poor calling people on SSDI “lazy fakers and deadbeats,” I want to scream.  Some people hate all government programs just because they’re government programs supported by taxes they must pay.  But SSDI is an imperfect government program that only helps disabled people who really need help.  People have been taxed to pay for those “deserving poor” since Biblical times.

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