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Congress Seeks to Help Poor and Elderly

HUNDREDS of thousands of Americans who are both disabled and poor, or elderly and poor, are falling through a gaping hole in America's safety net, congressional critics of government poverty policy charge. Possibly as many as 5 million, they add. Mostly elderly or children, these citizens are sufficiently poor to warrant supplementary funds from a special government program called Supplemental Security Income (SSI), critics say. But for a variety of reasons they are not receiving it, and are living in often extreme circumstances.

Starting next week the House Ways and Means Committee will try to mend this safety-net hole, when it seeks to change existing poverty law in the annual process of reconciling congressional spending with budget limits. Among other changes, the committee will vote on requiring the government to reach out to people who may be eligible and let them know about the program.

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Critics say this is probably the biggest reason the poor and disabled do not receive the additional funds: They don't know the program exists. Some critics label as inadequate existing efforts by the Social Security Administration to notify the elderly of the program when they turn 65.

This and other changes may pass the House, but their prospect is problematic this year in the Senate, though an effort will be made to include them in the budget reconciliation bill there as well.

SSI benefits have dual importance to families of the disabled poor. In many states, eligibility for SSI benefits automatically entitles a recipient to government-paid medicaid health care - for many families a more important benefit than the additional SSI monthly income. In many states it is possible to be living below the official poverty line and yet be ineligible for government-paid health care, since individual states make their own rules on medicaid eligibility.

Seventeen years ago America began SSI as a federal government program that would provide enough money to disabled and elderly poor Americans to maintain an adequate standard of living. To be eligible people must be poor indeed: for single people, a monthly income below $368 ($553 for a couple), and with assets under $2,000 ($3,000 for a couple).

The program helps an estimated 4.5 million Americans. But many who ought to be eligible do not receive benefits. Sen. John Heinz, a leading proponent of expanded government policy toward the poor and disabled, notes that in 1986 a study for the Commonwealth Fund concluded that, in his words, ``for every person currently receiving SSI, there is at least another out there that, for one reason or another, has not been able to obtain any of the benefits of the program.''

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