Californians Unite For Survival – The SSI/SSP Campaign Today
By Cathleen Williams

We are seeing it across the state and even across the nation. People are coming together to advocate and claim their human right to survival. Something so simple. Something so hard. But there’s reason to believe the time has come.

Some of California’s poorest and most vulnerable residents – seniors and persons with disabilities – have flocked to the State Capitol to challenge and reverse California’s brutal cuts to minimal subsistence, backed by a broad statewide coalition of 200 organizations, “Californians for SSI,” – CA4SSI.

SSI/SSP (usually just called “SSI”) is the state and federal program that was established in the 1970’s to guarantee basic support to persons with disabilities and seniors who are unable to work – in California, currently 1.3 million people depend on it; nationally, it provides support for over 8 million people. The current maximum individual payment in California is $889.40, which includes a state contribution of $156.40 (this is the “SSP” or state funded portion.)

The total SSI amount ($889.40) is less, of course, than the average rent for a studio apartment in most urban areas of the state, and in every county of the state, payment of rent would consume over half of the maximum SSI grant. And it’s only 90% of the federally declared “poverty line,” which in 2016 is $11,880 per year for an individual.

Here, then, is one of the not-so-secret keys to the crisis of homelessness on our city streets, and to the quiet hunger in our neighborhoods: seniors and persons with disabilities living on SSI, the fund that was supposed to sustain them, cannot afford rent, and if they do pay it, they cannot afford food. California is the only state in the nation where people living on SSI are ineligible for food stamps – ending this ban on food stamps is one of the goals of Californians For SSI.

Behind this reality lies a history of betrayal and political cruelty. The state has asked – and continues to ask -- the very poorest Californians to shoulder the burden of austerity until the state economy “recovers” from the 2008-2009 recession. Everyone says the recovery is underway – but still the State continues to slash support for SSI:

Ÿ- For decades California provided a cost of living increase (COLA) to SSI/SSP. It was repealed – completely eliminated – in Californians to shoulder the burden of austerity until the state economy “recovers” from the 2008-2009 recession. Everyone says the recovery is underway – but still the State continues to slash support for SSI:
Ÿ- In addition, the state funded (SSP) part of the grant was cut – from $233 a month to the federal minimum of $156 per month.
Ÿ- SSP grants for couples were cut to $396.20 from $568 a month. Total SSI/SSP grants for couples are now lower than they were in 2007. (See, CA4SSI 2015 Web Update)

Advocates hold a rally at the CA CapitolPhoto Courtesy Chris Jensen

To put this in perspective, the SSI caseload has climbed by some 75,000 since 2007, yet in 2015, the state proposed to spend only $2.8 billion – an $800 million cut from the $3.6 billion spent in the 2007-8 budget, while the cost of living has risen by roughly 14%. The cumulative cuts just over the past four budgets are approaching $4 billion. (See, CA4SSI 2015 Web Update).

Ultimately, in 2016, $4.00 per month was restored to the SSP grant – a “diet COLA,” as it’s referred to by CA4SSI. It goes into effect January 1, 2017. Today there is a broad consensus that something must be done to protect people in a state where the extremes of wealth and poverty have torn jagged edges in the social fabric of our communities.
On 8/23/2016, the Assembly passed AB 1584 in its amended form, (78 to 0). It will restore the SSI COLA on January 1, 2018, putting roughly $25.00 back into the grant, at a budgetary cost of $75-$100 million per year. An earlier proposal to increase SSI/SSP payments so that they reach the federal poverty level – an individual increase of $200 at an annual budgetary cost of 1 billion -- died in committee earlier in the year.

The political opposition claimed that $1 billion in “savings” resulted from the refusal to increase the grant at least to the poverty level. This “savings” is a myth – given the reality of the need. (See, the graphic illustration, “The Truth About $1 Billion In SSI/SSP ‘Savings’”.)

“The COLA increase will make a difference,” says Robert Coplin, CA4SSI activist. “I know people who use their whole grant to pay rent and depend on soup kitchens and food banks because they can’t afford the grocery store. $25 more a month will mean they can buy a few days of food in case they can’t get to a food source. But we really need to get to the federal poverty level. That will mean a level of independence in buying necessities.”

The fate of this modest – not to say minimal – increase of $25 is not yet known. But the fight is on.

AB 1584 now goes to the Governor’s desk for signature. He has until 9/30/2016 to sign it. Call the Governor’s office at (916) 445- 2841 if you’d like to express your support.

Waiting to meet with the CA Governor’s office.Photo Courtesy Chris Jensen