“It’s a careful budget,” said 23-year-old Morgan about her current living situation. Morgan has asked that her last name remain anonymous for privacy reasons. Each month, Morgan plans out how she will pay for all of her essential needs. She graduated from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a double major in agricultural economics and animal science in December 2018 and has been searching for a job ever since.
Unlike other graduates, Morgan has other needs to consider. Morgan was diagnosed with type one glutaric aciduria, which is a neurometabolic disorder in which the body does not have the necessary functions to completely break down certain amino acids. Meaning, while the average college student only has to worry about paying off student loans, Morgan also has to worry about paying medical expenses. “I don’t pay for Netflix or Hulu or Spotify Premium or Amazon Prime, which would all be nice to have, but I cut those out of my budget a while ago until I find a job just because I have to pay rent and pay for groceries and utilities.”
Morgan’s disability and low income have qualified her to receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI was created to help those with low incomes that are elderly or disabled. In 1974, 3.2 million individuals were receiving SSI aide nation-wide. According to the Supplemental Security Records kept by the U.S. Social Security Administration, in 2015 the number of individuals who rely on SSI had risen to over 8 million since the program’s conception. As far as benefits go, the amount an individual receives decreases with their age. The records show that individuals under eighteen receive roughly $100 more a month than those between the ages of 18 and 64 and roughly $200 more than those 65 and older.
In order to qualify for SSI, an individual has to have less than $2,000 in their combined accounts, which includes checking, savings, and asset accounts. This poses a problem for those like Morgan who rely on SSI — it prevents them from having any savings at all. Morgan said that most people who rely on SSI are afraid to put money into their savings account because, if they do, they could lose their SSI funding. Instead, they shuffle money around from different places, such as Venmo, in an effort to save enough money to get off of SSI.
Morgan and individuals like her have resources and support systems available to help them. Jennifer Duffek is an Independent Living Advisor at the League of Human Dignity. This Lincoln organization helps people with disabilities find housing and employment as well as provide peer counseling and support groups. Duffek said the issues that arise with SSI perpetuate poverty. “The system keeps you poor,” she said. On average, people who qualify for SSI only receive about $771 a month to pay for food, housing and medical expenses while only having $2,000 in their bank accounts.
Despite the injustices mentioned by Morgan regarding SSI, there are people working to combat it. Nebraska Senator Anna Wishart of District 27 sees the downfalls of programs like SSI and wants to improve them. Speaking to the weaknesses of SSI, Wishart said, “They [the disabled] don’t have a lot of wealth basically because otherwise, they wouldn’t qualify for it. One of the problems I have with that is that I think it’s such a low amount of money that somebody gets a month and they are not allowed to have a lot of income sources coming to be able to have access to that. Sometimes if somebody gets a job and gets a raise it can take them off their ability to access it.”
Wishart is in agreement that there needs to be more funding for SSI and other programs that benefit the disabled. “It’s a really good issue to look into because there is a lot of room for growth.” One improvement that has developed within the past five years is the creation of the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act passed into Nebraska law in December 2014. This legislature created the ABLE savings accounts, which allow individuals living off of SSI to save money without being taken off of their funding for exceeding the limit. It is a way for individuals to save up enough money to one day get off of SSI and similar programs.
Still, it is believed that there is a lot more work to be done in regards to SSI and other government programs. “They’re helpful to a point,” Morgan said. “But some of the limitations are problematic, and the loopholes are way too confusing.” Duffek’s opinion is that the public and political figures have no idea how SSI is restraining the disabled. “Social injustices continue to occur the more barriers you have,” she said. She believes the lack of knowledge surrounding the needs of the disabled and how SSI affects their lives will perpetuate this cycle of injustice. If more people knew what was really going on, then they would make the initiative to change the system. Morgan agrees that it will be a group effort and, although she believes it needs to start with the government, she also believes that individuals can help get that started. “I would strive to get to know other people in your community with disabilities and meet on a monthly basis, if not biweekly, to help come up with a plan and then implement that plan.”
Morgan has started to make that connection possible by co-founding the UNL Disability Club. The club meets every other Wednesday and offers disabled students a platform to express their struggles and have a supportive community to help them through their problems. Morgan’s goal was to create a space where students with disabilities can come and find community. They can ask others for help with different problems and find a welcoming place. All are welcome to join the club whether you are disabled or not. Morgan designed the club to bring everyone together and break through barriers.
Morgan believes that, with the right support systems, it is possible for individuals to no longer rely on SSI and other similar programs. Morgan knows that she will someday get off of SSI and change the system so that others won’t have to go through the hardships that she has faced. “I know with me in charge, I can change it, and I know that one day I will be in charge,” Morgan said. Until then, organizations such as the UNL Disability club and the League of Human Dignity are there to offer support and community to individuals in the Lincoln community.