Tenth Anniversary of “Welfare Reform” – Impact on Elderly and Disabled

It was ten years ago this past Tuesday that President Clinton signed into law the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996,” the so-called “welfare reform” law. While there has been a spate of coverage of the anniversary in the press, it has almost all been focused on families with children and the TANF program, weighing the benefits of the new program against its negative aspects. There has been nary a word on the impact of the legislation on older people and those with disabilities, although they too felt the impact of “welfare reform.” Perhaps this is because it was impossible to do a “balanced” story on this population since there was nothing positive to report. All of the changes affecting the elderly and people with disabilities were designed with the goal of reducing expenditures. There was no pretense that any of the changes would benefit the lives of those affected.

How did the legislation affect the elderly and people with disabilities?

Immigrants – The biggest change was with respect to immigrant eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits. In fact, the restrictions on elderly immigrant eligibility for SSI were by far the most severe restrictions on immigrant eligibility for benefits established by the law. Before the infamous date of August 22, 1996 (a date that any advocate for immigrants remembers as well as the Fourth of July), lawful immigrants, including persons residing under color of law) were eligible for SSI on the same basis as citizens. All that changed on August 22, 1996. After that date, elderly immigrants, with limited exceptions, could no longer establish eligibility for SSI on the basis of age. For those entering the United States after August 22, 1996, the limitations were even more severe with most immigrants precluded from eligibility even if they could show disability. One significant exception was for refugees, asylees and persons for whom deportation is withheld who would be eligible on the same basis as before, but for a period limited to seven years. Unfortunately, now many people in this group are reaching the end of their seven year period and thousands of elderly and disabled refugees and asylees are having their benefits terminated each year.

Immigrant eligibility for Social Security benefits was also affected. Since 1996 immigrants cannot receive Social Security Retirement or Disability benefits unless they can show that they are “lawfully present” in the United States.

“Fugitive Felon” Penalty – PRWORA also introduced the “fugitive felon” penalty to SSI, Food Stamps and TANF benefits. This provision has since been extended to Veterans benefits as well as Social Security Retirement, Disability and Survivors benefits. In the SSI program alone it has resulted in the suspension of benefits for 100,000 elderly and disabled individuals.

No Benefits in Month of Application – Prior to August 22, 1996, SSI benefits were payable effective the date the individual applied for benefits. PRWORA changed this so that eligibility for benefits could not begin until the month following the month of application.

Installment Payments – PRWORA established the concept of withholding a portion of past-due benefits once eligibility for SSI has been established and parceling them out in three installments when the past-due benefits cover a period of more than a year. Since this has proved to be a somewhat effective cost-saving measure in light of the above average mortality rate of SSI recipients, the measure was recently extended in the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 to provide for installment payments of any past-due benefit exceeding 3 months.

The story may not be balanced, but the impact of the anniversary on older people and people with disabilities is nonetheless too significant to ignore. For further information, contact Gerald McIntyre in the NSCLC Los Angeles office.


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