Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Marriage and the Disabled

Here's an old one I just dug up:

As a 40-something man who has never walked or stood because of a severe congenital neuromuscular disability, I'm especially proud of my education (Harvard), family (two daughters, ages 4 and 8) and my 20-year marriage. Yet no matter how noble President Bush's goal of fostering (heterosexual) couplehood like mine, I beg him to begin by eliminating the web of federal fine print that not only discourages marriage for Americans with disabilities but actually punishes many of us who do attempt wedded bliss.

Whatever the merits of the president's commitment to conjugality, antiquated, ill-conceived and unfair anti-marriage restrictions embedded in the Social Security benefits code are long overdue for change. Granted, few Americans are even aware of these byzantine statutes. But Mr. Bush could prove his political mettle by championing two causes at once--matrimony and full inclusion of America's 50 million disabled, to which he's pledged support in the past.

Specifically, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which provides a monthly check (currently averaging $552) to nearly 4 million disabled Americans and another 640,000 senior citizens, is a terrific safety net for people who can't support themselves financially. Recipients can own a home of any size, a car of any value and up to $2,000 in additional assets. Special work incentives even permit part-time or occasional earnings without complete loss of benefits.

The problem occurs when two disabled SSI recipients decide to get married. If they both own homes, one of them has to sell. The proceeds, however, can't go into any kind of savings account. As a couple, their liquid-assets cap drops to $1,500 per person, or $3,000 together. Nest-egg building isn't allowed. If they don't prudently dump their prenuptial savings, both face expulsion from the program. No exceptions.

Why? The operating theory seems to be that two can live more cheaply than one. Will that truism be part of the president's new pro-marriage curriculum? I know many poor disabled couples who have chosen not to marry for fear of losing this much-needed income. They hide their connubial relations and forgo a shared address or name and communal sanctification. It's not that they lack the religious faith or conflict-resolution skills to make marriage work. It's that their government has threatened to remove their safety net.

The other big federal program for people with disabilities is Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). This uses regular Social Security funds to subsidize workers who become disabled. When I was 18 my mother died, and I began receiving "survivors' benefits" under SSDI. The checks were drawn on her Social Security account. Disabled children can receive such benefits indefinitely after a parent dies, provided they don't start earning too much money independently--and don't get married.

Should marriage automatically disqualify someone from benefits he or she would otherwise receive? I was eligible as a bachelor but not as a husband, though my physical limitations and expenses didn't change. If my wife were rich, I might understand. Yet that never entered the equation. The exclusion is absolute, without regard to the couple's monetary resources. Perhaps the new spouse is expected to replace the dead parent as principal caretaker. Nevertheless, think about the pressures such an arrangement, and the loss of income, can put on a young couple. Is this the kind of healthy, community-building, governmentally supported matrimony the president has in mind?

My wife and I didn't know about the marriage exclusion when we tied the knot. All my Social Security counselors ever asked about in our occasional meetings was my income and special expenses related to my disability--such as daily personal attendant care and wheelchair repairs. We only learned of our crime 12 years after becoming espoused. I lost my monthly $800 and received a bill for $65,715 for the previous 12 years' "overpayment." My wife, who doesn't have a disability, asked half-jokingly, "Should we get divorced?"

Is that what our nation's leaders want? Clearly, penalizing people with disabilities for getting and staying married isn't a practice President Bush or anyone else would want to endorse. Yet if we are to promote marriage as a matter of federal policy, it's hypocritical not to eliminate the barriers to healthy matrimony that already exist in our most basic social services.