Wednesday, December 29, 2010

People with disabilities in NJ face major cuts in SSI

From The Star-Ledger in N.J. In the picture, Raymond Mendenko, right, talks to his grandson Ian Davis, 5, left, at his home in Wrightstown on Thursday. Next month, elderly and disabled residents will have their Supplemental Security Income checks reduced due to state budget cuts. Raymond Mendenko, who lives in a trailer with his wife Debbie, is unable to work due to a spinal cord injury. His SSI checks will be reduced from $350 to $96 a month.

TRENTON — When head trauma from a car accident left Lorraine Bordo unable to work as a real estate agent, she turned to the government for help. For almost two decades, she has received Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, which helps the elderly and the disabled make ends meet.

But now that help is drying up. Bordo is one of about 5,970 New Jerseyans whose SSI payments will be cut next month because the state eliminated $6.7 million in subsidies. The average cut per person is $209 monthly.

"I can’t pay my mortgage; I don’t have enough money," said Bordo, 63, of Berkeley Township. "I’m going to be in foreclosure. My whole check was going to my mortgage payment."

Supplemental Security Income, a federal program run by the Social Security Administration and handled by the Department of Human Services in New Jersey, includes both federal and state payments. Years ago, the federal government reduced benefits to couples when one of the spouses is ineligible for SSI benefits, said Nicole Brossoie, a spokeswoman for Human Services. So New Jersey decided to cover the gap with state money.

But when state officials faced an $11 billion shortfall while patching together this year’s budget, they decided to reduce the state supplement. It’s another example of how the state’s budget crisis has imperiled safety nets for the poor and elderly.

"A review of surrounding states’ supplement programs revealed that none appeared to have a ‘couples with ineligible spouse’ option," Brossoie said. "Therefore, as New Jersey faced a mounting budget crisis, the reduced supplement to this category of SSI was among many difficult choices made by the department in order to sustain other direct services."

Senate Budget Chairman Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said it shows how some funding cuts are only being felt months after the budget was approved in the summer.

"This was a group of folks who did not realize they were being squeezed," he said. "The worst thing is, it affects some of our most vulnerable citizens."

In New Jersey, 170,520 people are expected to receive SSI payments in the current fiscal year, a 4 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. Because of the increased caseload, the state is required to pay 3.2 percent more, or $21.15 million, to the federal government in administrative expenses, according to Human Services.

But the state’s total SSI payments are dropping 9.3 percent, to $52.68 million, due to the cut in payments for people with ineligible spouses. About 80 percent of the couples affected are now receiving $1,036 a month; next month they will start receiving $827.

Sarlo said the cut was "non-negotiable" with the Christie administration.

"This was a budget decision, much like the hundreds of difficult ones we made amid a budget crisis," Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said. "It certainly was not a preferred result, but cuts occurred everywhere."

Bordo said she was furious when she learned about the cut to her SSI payment, and drove to the Toms River Social Security office to ask an employee there what happened.

"I said, wait a minute, who authorized this?" she said. "She said, ‘Christie.’ "

Bordo’s husband, who is 65, receives $358 a month in Social Security benefits. But he’s not eligible for SSI, which is why Bordo’s payment is getting reduced. Her current monthly payment is $871, but the state’s cut will reduce it to $662.

Bordo is luckier than some. About 760 couples are already receiving less than $209 in state money in their SSI payments. In those cases, the cut reduces their payment to zero.

Raymond Mendenko, 55, of Wrightstown, is also facing a loss of benefits. He said he received about $350 in SSI this month, but is expecting that to drop to $96.

He said he suffered a serious concussion while playing high school football. Over time, the injury developed into spinal cord problems, making it impossible to keep his job as an auto mechanic.

"I couldn’t even deliver parts. I couldn’t even hold onto a steering wheel," Mendenko said. "I wish I could work, believe me."

With his wife also out of work, he’s not sure where else they can find financial help.

"We go to the food banks," he said. "We’ll be eating a lot of rice and French fries and applesauce."

The Department of Human Services urges people facing benefit cuts to call 211 or visit for information on other assistance programs.