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Don't Penalize Disabled Kids : Washington should seek properly broad criteria for aid

November 11, 1996

President Clinton can begin making good on his campaign promise to fix the flawed welfare reform law by dealing with the issue of benefits for disabled children. When the Social Security Administration moves to redefine the eligibility criteria, as required under the new law, the White House should encourage a broad definition. The health of thousands of children is at stake.

One million disabled children currently receive some form of federal assistance, primarily for mental retardation, physical disabilities and, increasingly, emotional disorders. Poor disabled children also qualify for cash benefits, about $500 a month in California.

Under the new rules, narrowly tailored eligibility regulations would eliminate as many as 200,000 children from the benefit rolls, according to an analysis by the Congressional Budget Office. But this is a humanitarian issue, and a more generous standard should be adopted, one that could drop fewer than 100,000 children from this program.

Congress set tighter eligibility standards in part to remove from the rolls children who were being coached by parents to mimic emotional ailments or behavioral problems. Such fraud qualified some families for so-called "crazy money." On this point Congress was right. Fraud should not be tolerated. But most recipients are truly needy.

The new law also calls for tighter standards for children with moderate disabilities, which would preserve funds for those considered "truly disabled." Now further fine-tuning of definitions is needed, particularly in the aftermath of a 1990 U.S. Supreme Court decision that broadly extended benefits to thousands of children with mental impairments or multiple moderate disabilities.

The welfare reform law terminates federal disability benefits to legal immigrants, regardless of age or impairment, and the aid never has gone to illegal immigrants. An estimated 50,000 legal immigrant children are expected to lose benefits nationwide; as many as half live in California. Only Congress can restore the program for these children.

The welfare reform law requires the Social Security Administration to formulate new criteria by Nov. 22. President Clinton can influence that decision and should act for the benefit of disabled children. Yes, fraud is a problem. Yes, costs must be cut. But disabled children should not be counted among cost-saving measures.

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