Being disabled does not make me immoral

October 23, 2020

“Who came up with this system of the haves and the have-nots anyway?”
“That would be the haves.”

I can’t remember where I heard that, but it feels appropriate right now. That’s because I am frustrated not only by my lack of income, but especially by the scrutiny my measly income receives.

A few weeks ago, the New York Times broke a story that revealed Trump paid almost no taxes. Despite his huge amounts of money, he found ways around his obligations. Maybe the IRS took a close look at his taxes and determined it was all legitimate. Maybe not. Either way, he got away with it. And he’s far from the only one.

Meanwhile, I am receiving Social Security, housing, food, health insurance, and other benefits which allow me to sort of almost just about but not quite cover all of my basic bills. Of course, they don’t allow for “extras” like a vacation, big car repairs, a new used car when mine eventually bites the dust, or medical treatments that aren’t covered by insurance, and even without those things the money isn’t enough. So of course the solution is to try and earn money. Yet I am under such scrutiny that this is nearly impossible. And even without earning money, just living life is far too complicated because of the scrutiny.

The benefits cliff is not a new topic. It’s counter-intuitive to helping people get off of benefits. There’s an all-or-none setup that doesn’t work because my health is not all-or-none. Some months I can do more, some months less. Why should I be punished for that? But I digress.

I am not talking about the absurd benefits cliff itself, but about the intrusiveness of the entire setup. It is invasive and insulting.

I no longer have any financial privacy. Multiple benefits offices have me fill out detailed and intrusive forms. They look not only at my taxes, but also at my bank statements, including PayPal and Venmo. They question every deposit. For some, I am required to provide proof of the purpose of each deposit. When I can not show a cancelled check because my bank no longer provides these on bank statements, I must then pay to get them from the bank. When a friend gives me money, the office expects a notarized statement as to its purpose.

Seriously? I’m supposed to ask friends and others to notarize a statement about why they paid me?!? And about about strangers who send me $50 via PayPal or Venmo for buying some random thing that I’m selling? This is completely unrealistic, not to mention embarrassing! How exactly am I supposed to ask for this?

Example: “Do you remember how seven months ago I paid for that gift for Susan? And you know how you reimbursed me for your half the next day by Venmo? Could you give me a notarized statement that you weren’t paying me for anything but were just reimbursing me? I’d rather not say why.”

Yeah, right.

Then there’s actually trying to earn money. The limits for what I can earn without losing my disability benefits are really low – lower than my actual benefits. But long before I hit that number, there’s another number that’s scary: the one that triggers greater scrutiny from the government. Technically, reaching that number every month shouldn’t be a problem. After all, I wouldn’t be earning enough to get kicked off benefits. Still, we all know that the last thing we want is more attention here, especially these days, so I want to avoid getting anywhere near that number. Why give prying eyes more reason to examine me?

I am hugely resentful. Why can’t I simply try to earn as much as possible? Chances are I wouldn’t earn enough to get kicked off benefits (every time I have tried to work in recent years, I got a lot sicker and had to give up) but I would sure like to try and earn enough to buy some new clothes! And why can’t I simply live like a normal person who lays out the money for a shared birthday gift?

I get that the government wants to avoid fraud. They don’t want me getting benefits while also receiving $5000 per month from various friends and not reporting it on my taxes. But really, what are the odds of anything like that happening? Are there really going to be so many people on benefits who find a way to get enough money that doesn’t have to be reported on their taxes that it justifies this level of scrutiny? Would it really justify the salaries of the people paid for this scrutiny? Meanwhile, they make me explain that the $50 deposit into my checking account was a Chanukah gift from my aunt and no, I don’t wan to ask her for a notarized letter confirming that.

Now, let’s say someone was being deceptive. They received benefits they shouldn’t receive. The average SSDI payment for adults in 2020 is $1258 and the average SSI payments are $783 for an individual and $1175 for a couple. Meanwhile, we watch rich people and companies avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes. One rich person’s yearly taxes, if properly paid, would probably cover the lifetime disability benefits of quite a few people.

A lot of people find it unfair that they pay more in taxes than rich people do. I feel the same. But at the moment I am pissed that they get away with it while I need to justify every penny. Where is the scrutiny? I find it hard to believe the government couldn’t catch these folks if given the resources. Wouldn’t it make more sense to devote the salaries of staff to catch someone who owes millions, instead of focusing on disabled folks, the majority of whom are just trying their best to cover their bills?

A lot of people argue that the big difference is that disabled folks are living off of government benefits, so the government has to be sure that money isn’t being misspent. Uh huh. Tell me, do rich people not use government services? I’m pretty sure they use government infrastructure, their businesses benefit from people who attended public education, many of their businesses thrive because they pay such low wages that employees must use food stamps, and so much more. Many of them attended public school and some were even on food stamps themselves in the past. They benefit, even if their line is more squiggly than my direct one.

I am not suggesting that benefits should be handed out without any follow-up but maybe, just maybe, our current system goes absurdly overboard. I think we need a system where I can be reimbursed for laying out money for a birthday gift without having to jump through hoops.


Goodbye food stamps

November 26, 2018

Edit 11/27/18: I must apologize to all of you wonderful readers for the errors in the original version of this post. As it turns out, the income limit for food stamps was not cut in half. The person on the phone didn’t know what they were talking about and the appropriate information was missing from their web site (both of these issues have been reported.) So that part is good!

However, I have still lost my benefits for now. The reason is that in determining the income limit, medical deductions are not counted. WTF?!?! My income had gone up, and I am now $20 over the limit. Just $20!!! However, my income has since gone down again, so I can resubmit paperwork to get my benefits reinstated. It’s a lot of effort, but worth it.

But think about how hard it was to learn this. I got a letter with misinformation. I spent 45 minutes on hold to speak with someone who gave more misinformation. I spent the night thinking my benefits were cut off. Then this morning someone called me back and explained it all. Why wasn’t that explanation put in the original letter?! The system is broken in so many ways. Not to mention the part where I lose $172 every month in benefits because my income is $20 too high. If they want people to get off benefits, this isn’t the way to do it, because this just encourages people to earn less so they don’t fall off the benefits cliff! Now back to the original post….

Benefits in the U.S. (and many other places) are majorly screwed up. Today I’ll tell you how I lost my food benefits, which I just learned about a few minutes ago.

When I first became disabled, I wasn’t eligible for the SNAP program (formerly called food stamps) because my assets were too high – meaning I had too much money in the bank. But then they changed that, and I was able to sign up. For 4 years I have received money every month to buy food.

The limits are strict. I can only buy certain kinds of food – nothing from the bakery, for example. And only food – no soap or toothpaste or toilet paper. Still, it helps a lot!

Until this year, I was getting the maximum amount for a single person in Massachusetts. It didn’t cover everything, which was worrisome. I’m small (around 125 pounds) and sedentary. How would someone bigger and more active manage on that small amount? Luckily for me, I have savings, so I used that to make up the difference. Friends of mine went to food pantries. Sucky, but that’s our system.

Earlier this year my benefits were lowered by $20. That sucked, but I knew it would go back next year when I filed my 2018 taxes, showing less income. It still surprised me that with my low income I wasn’t getting the maximum anymore. Again, a very messed up system.

And then yesterday I got a letter saying my benefits were getting cancelled. Part of the reason had to do with me not being disabled. Of course it was a weekend, so I had to wait. In the meantime, I did some research. New guidelines came out on October 1, but even so, I should qualify. So today I called. After 45 minutes on hold, I got someone. She didn’t know much and I had to keep correcting her. Finally, well over an hour after I’d called, it was 5pm – time to quit. She said she or her supervisor would call me back tomorrow. But I’d learned one thing: the income limit she used was half of what I was seeing online. I said that, and she couldn’t explain it. So after we hung up, I did more research.

In many states, there’s no asset limit, but in Massachusetts there is. Here’s how it works: if you’re not disabled, there’s an asset limit (about $2000.) If you are disabled, then there’s a higher asset limit (about $3350) but only if you earn more than a certain amount. If you earn under that amount, you can have any assets you want. If you earn over that amount, there’s an asset cap. A house doesn’t count. Cars don’t count. But money in the bank does count. I have enough in the bank to cause a problem if they look at my assets, but my income was always low enough that it wasn’t an issue.

And I’m glad for that money in the bank! It’s there for emergencies. It pays for medical expenses when there’s a month where they cost more. It will pay for my new car when my current car dies. It pays for a dinner out with friends once a month or a new sweater or two from the consignment shop. It’s what kept me from having to move in with my parents while I waited for over 2 years for SSDI to come through. I worked my ass off for that money in the bank. I spent my career working in nonprofit, which as we all know, doesn’t pay very well. And I was living in Boston, one of the most expensive parts of the country. Saving that money was NOT easy! I cut back on a lot of things to save that money. As my friend Rob said to me a few minutes ago: “You’re being punished for doing everything right except being able bodied.”

Because now that money in the bank counts against me.  But it shouldn’t.

You see, until October 1, the income limit was 200% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL.) That comes out to $2023. That’s a tiny sum in this part of Massachusetts. Especially for someone who is disabled who could easily spend hundreds every month in health expenses. I was under that amount, so my assets were irrelevant. Then on October 1 they changed the income limit to 100% FPL. That comes out to $1012!

Think about that for a minute. In an area where a 1 bedroom apartment in lousy shape will cost at least $800 per month, the income limit is $1012. So if you earn $1015 and pay $800 for your apartment while you’re on a waiting list for Section 8 housing, you now have $215 to pay for food, medical expenses, transportation, and anything else in your life. It just can’t be done. So you have to dip into your savings. Let’s say your assets are just a bit over the limit, around $4000. How long do you think that will last you? A year if you’re lucky? Probably less. At that point you can now get on benefits. And if you have an problems where you need savings, you have spent them all and you’re now entirely fucked.

Or maybe you earn more. Maybe you earn $2000 and you have $10,000 in the bank. That’s plenty of money, right? Not really. It’s hard to live on $2000 in this area if you’re able-bodied. If you’re disabled, it’s not enough. You’ll have to take money out of savings each month. As soon as you have to pay for a car repair or two, or a couple of large medical expenses, your savings will be gone.

There’s no perfect answer. I get that. But to cut the income limit in half is cruel. To do so without warning anyone is heartless. To send out a form letter that doesn’t explain any of this and just cut off people’s benefits is both.

You know that safety net everyone is always counting on? Watch out, because the holes just got even bigger.


I wish I could stop my fake smile

July 21, 2018

Even at 12 years old, I knew not to milk my situation. If I exaggerated the pain I was in, cried unnecessarily, or complained too much, it would come back to bite me in the butt later. I was right, of course. Even without all of the theatrics, some doctors and teachers suggested my pain wasn’t real, that I was just trying to get attention. Assholes. The thing is, this idea that I shouldn’t exaggerate anything boomeranged, and soon I was pretending I was ok even when I wasn’t.

Sometimes that’s a good thing. For me, faking it until I make it can help. And I hate having people constantly ask me what’s wrong, so looking like nothing is wrong can help to prevent that.

But then, sometimes it’s not so good.

Today a friend stopped by unexpectedly. I was NOT in a good place. I’ll probably right about that another time, but basically, I’m in rough shape. The pain has been worse lately, and it’s spreading to more parts of my body for some unknown reason. I’m worried about the future. I might have to move out of the apartment that I love. I’m frustrated and overwhelmed and, mostly, very scared.

I started to talk about some of this with my friend. I could feel the start of tears in my eyes. But I didn’t want to get too far down the rabbit hole. If I tried to explain everything, it would just lead me to focus more on the thing I’m trying to get off my mind for a while. So I said I needed to stop talking about it. And a second later we had changed the subject and I found myself smiling.

Now don’t get me wrong, smiling is a good thing, especially when you’re happy. But I wasn’t happy. I was smiling because I am used to plastering that smile on my face, even when I don’t want to. It’s what made the LTD and SSDI trials so hard: I was supposed to let them see how I really felt, and I didn’t know how to do that anymore. After so many years of fake smiles, how could I stop?

Before my friend showed up, I was definitely not smiling. I wasn’t smiling after he left, either. But with him here, I smiled. I thought to myself, “I should stop smiling. He knows I’m scared and in pain and he’ll be here for me. I want to stop.” But I couldn’t.

When my grandmother died just a few years ago, I cried during the funeral. Later, at the shiva (a Jewish tradition where friends and family gather to console the bereaved) I found myself smiling a lot. One relative I didn’t know very well even commented on how great it was that I could focus on the good parts of my grandmother’s life and remain so cheerful. Little did he know. I wasn’t cheerful. It was an act. I was smiling, I had a bounce in my voice, and I was miserable.

My fake smile was helpful today at the grocery store. I looked and acted normal, so no one asked any questions. But with my family and friends, sometimes I want to stop smiling.

If only I knew how.


Feeling too disabled to protest

June 29, 2018

Like in many cities around the country, there will be a big protest in Boston tomorrow, and I won’t be there. Not because I don’t want to be there, but because my health stops me.

At first I thought I might borrow a wheelchair like I did a couple weeks ago for the Pride parade. A friend even said she’d push the chair, and I really appreciated that. That spark of hope lasted for about 45 seconds. Then I remembered the weather forecast.

Until now, we have had surprisingly not-horrible-by-my-standards weather for this time of year. But that ended this week. And tomorrow is supposed to be the worst of them all: 97 degrees and a dew point that the forecasters are calling “oppressive.” The thing is, I struggle when the dew point is what everyone else considers reasonable, so you can imagine how well I do when it’s “oppressive”! For me, that means difficulty breathing, lots of sweating, my already suffering adrenals struggling even more to do their job, more pain than usual, etc. I could end up suffering not just for a day or two. I could have a major health setback. So I can’t go.

I would like to participate in some other substantial way. I can’t donate to funds, since my income doesn’t even support my own expenses.

So I do what I can. I post a lot on social media to make people aware. I don’t know how many people are actually seeing what I post, or how many care, or how many didn’t already know what I’m posting about, but if I get even one person to vote this fall who wouldn’t otherwise, then it’s worth it.

I am trying to humanize the situation for my friends and acquaintances. For most of them, Trump’s and the GOP’s policies are horrible, but don’t affect anyone they know. I’m trying to show them that isn’t true.

Of course, this is harder because I won’t post on social media about being on SSDI or food stamps. My “real” friends know, but I don’t want to share that online. Still, I do talk about how my health insurance is at risk, and the real consequences that could bring for me. I talk about not being about to work, about being queer, about being Jewish, about being a woman, and how these policies will affect me because of those various aspects of myself.

It’s not enough, but it’s a start.

I feel incredibly frustrated and yes, even angry, that I can’t protest tomorrow. Over and over I have had to miss out on these protests. Instead, I am trying to remind myself that maybe what I am doing is helping in some small way.

And in that vein, dear reader, let me ask you to please vote! I know that many of you aren’t in the U.S. but I’m guessing it’s important for you to vote, too. And for those of you in the U.S. with chronic illness, it is especially important for you to look at who is going to be on your ballot this November and what their policies are. Our lives are at risk. We are facing limits to healthcare access, cuts to social security as well as medicare and medicaid, not to mention cuts to food stamps and housing services. There is so much more that I could say, but I will just mention these few things that on their own should worry us all. This November we will see many seats in the House of Representatives as well as the Senate up for grabs, and it’s important to vote in folks who will fight for us, not hurt us. At the same time, many governors’ seats will be voted on, as well as other state and local seats, and those are also super important. If you ever want to learn more about any of this, just let me know and I will be glad to discuss it.

Either way, if you are in the U.S. then put November 6, 2018 on your calendar and be sure to vote! And if you won’t be able to get to your polling station, contact your town or city hall well in advance to get an absentee ballot. You can vote from home!

Even if, like me, you can’t get out to protest in person, you can protest with your ballot. Let’s do this!


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