Social safety net programs like Supplemental Security Income allow disabled Americans to live and thrive independently. However, many of these programs have strict rules around work eligibility that penalize folks who want to work.
Andrew Schlesinger in Louisiana, for example, who was interviewed by WDSU, is among the thousands of Americans facing this issue. Schlesinger has spina bifida, and SSI qualifies him for Medicaid insurance. However, if he has more than $2,000 in his bank account, he would lose his eligibility for both SSI and Medicaid. Thus he would be penalized under the current policy for putting his multiple college degrees to work.
This is an absurd policy that often keeps disabled people impoverished. The Work Without Worry Act introduced in Congress aims to safeguard financial security by guaranteeing that people like Schlesinger can continue receiving benefits regardless of their earnings.
Sign the petition: Urge Congress to pass the Work Without Worry Act.
Before we go any further, let me say this is a pretty niche bill. That is unsurprising considering it is a bipartisan effort, and Republicans are not known for making it easier for marginalized Americans to thrive. However, any progress is welcome, especially when it comes to fixing bureaucratic pitfalls that disadvantage front-line communities.
Currently, people with intellectual and developmental disabilities rely on various public programs throughout their lives, including SSI and benefits for health care support. Strict rules around work eligibility prevent many folks from employment for fear of losing lifesaving benefits.
People who experience disabilities that manifest before the age of 22 and are unable to sustain themselves through work may qualify for "Disabled Adult Child" benefits. Navigating the different programs and their associated rules poses a significant challenge for people with I/DD and their families. Even if a disabled person earns just $1 over the substantial gainful activity levels before receiving DAC benefits, they permanently lose their eligibility for DAC. This is a crucial work disincentive in Social Security for disabled people and their families.
"Our government should protect the earned benefits of people with disabilities while also supporting and empowering them to reach their full potential in professions of their choosing," said Sen. Patty Murray in a statement. "Our bill will do both—it ensures that Americans with disabilities and their families receive the full Social Security benefits promised to them while also making sure that people who want to work, can."
The Work Without Worry Act would provide more freedom for nearly 6,000 Americans over the next decade without significantly affecting the Social Security Trust Funds. As of this writing, Sens. Murray, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon, Republican Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Republican Ted Budd of North Carolina, Democrat Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Democrat Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Democrat Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Democrat Jeff Merkley of Oregon, and Democrat Sherrod Brown of Ohio have co-sponsored the bill.
Some of my favorite civil rights stories come from disability rights history. I often talk about the direct action that lead to wheelchair accessibility on public transportation, which now benefits anyone using a mobility device, stroller, or any number of other scenarios. Since it's Disability Pride Month, uplifting the anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act on July 20, 1990 feels quite appropriate. After years of work to even get legislation written, the ADA was stalled in committee for months. It increasingly looked like there was no path forward for the bill (already a much too familiar story). Undeterred, activists engaged in direct action, including the historic "Capitol Crawl." As described by Minnesota's state disability office:
About 475 individuals, many in wheelchairs, gathered on the sidewalk in front of the White House to launch the "Wheels of Justice Campaign." Sixty protesters with disabilities "cast aside their wheelchairs, crutches, and walkers to crawl or drag themselves, step by step, up the 78 marble stairs of the Capitol's West Front.
This protest, that came to be known as the "Capitol Crawl", was intended to openly illustrate the struggles that people in the disabilities communities faced and spurred Congress to pass the ADA. About 1,000 other protesters watched as members of ADAPT (Americans Disabled for Accessible Public Transit, now known only as ADAPT) threw themselves out of their chairs and began their crawl. Together, the march and the crawl comprised one of the largest disability direct actions to date.
Stories like these remind us of the power of collective action. Disability rights activists continue to drive policy to this day. I've previously written about how disabled people were central to the Kavanaugh protests. Ady Barkan, a progressive organizer with Lou Gehrig's disease, became a household name after a viral confrontation with then-Sen. Jeff Flake on a plane about his vote on a tax bill. Don't even get me started on how we don't have the ACA without disabled activists cutting through the Tea Party noise. Now that millions of previously nondisabled Americans are experiencing the effects of long COVID-19, I suspect (and hope) that we're moving into a new era of disability justice.
ADA is the floor, as are the fixes provided by the Worry Without Work Act. No one should have to worry about losing their benefits. Every person deserves the right to work without the looming threat of losing their benefits. The passage of this legislation would not only grant thousands of Americans the freedom to work without worry, but also secure our financial independence and security.
We have mountains to move when it comes to disability justice. Legislation that helps chip away at unjust and silly policies is a necessary move forward.
Sign the petition: Everyone deserves the right to work without jeopardizing their benefits.