by Jack Bragen

[dropcap]P[/dropcap]eople talk of the one percent versus the 99 percent to describe the economic inequality that has developed in the United States. However, there is another one percent which is at the bottom, not the top, and it is a disadvantaged group of people who suffer from mental health issues.
We are a group of people who are frequently put in jails and institutions and who usually must live close to the very bottom of the economic heap.
It has always been difficult for a person with a mental disability to get hired at any but the worst of jobs. In today’s society, with the prevalence of computers and background checks, it makes it nearly impossible for a person with a psychiatric disability to make a fresh start at a new job.
They are carrying with them the baggage of a computerized record wherever they try to go. Even if a psychiatric disability isn’t supposed to be findable by computer, a google search of a person will usually bring up things that are collateral to the illness.
Thus, many persons with mental illness or other disabilities are forced to try to live merely on public benefits. Of course, it is far worse to be homeless and to have no means of income whatsoever. In that circumstance, a person is looking at death due to poverty, not merely discomfort.
When mentally disabled people try to get a part-time job to better their circumstances, they soon discover that their monetary, housing and medical benefits are being cut to compensate for the income of that job.
After the first 80 dollars per month of earned income, SSI money is cut by 50 percent of earnings. Next is the chunk taken by housing. Section 8 housing will raise our rent when we have an increase in our monthly income, and this equals about another third of what we earn.
These reductions in SSI and housing benefits are calculated using the amount of our earnings before income taxes. Thus, income taxes, Social Security taxes and state taxes all take another chunk.
As it turns out, if you combine the reductions in benefits along with the hassle of the red tape, it does not seem worthwhile to earn more than about a hundred dollars a month when living on SSI and SSDI. People with mental and physical disabilities are stuck in a perpetual system of enforced poverty.
If someone is living on public benefits due to disability, they are usually either forced to not work beyond a very small amount, or else to get a full-time job with full health benefits. Most disabled persons aren’t ready or able to make the jump to working full time, and doing so can create a risk to a person’s health.
Furthermore, the Social Security Administration and Housing officials both maintain a system of fear to help enforce the poverty sentence. They make you believe you will be prosecuted if your mother buys you groceries and you don’t report that as income. And yet, the 800 dollars per month that is provided will not cover Section 8 rent, utilities, food, transportation and clothing. Almost no one can live on the amount provided.
As a result, persons with mental disabilities are stuck in a state of perpetual poverty enforced by “force of fear.”

Social Security officials maintain a system of fear to help enforce the poverty sentence. They make you believe you will be prosecuted if your mother buys you groceries and you don’t report that as income. Art by Christa Occhiogrosso

Yet, the Social Security Administration has the audacity to claim that they have rules that are set up to help people work. This is essentially a lie.
Many non-afflicted people who are fairly successful in their careers and earn a good income, may view me as ungrateful and believe that I have an attitude problem. After all, I am getting a small income, housing and medical care, all of which I don’t have to work for.
Certainly, I am grateful for the public benefits and support that removes a tremendous burden from my daily existence. Receiving public benefits allows a person to live and to get most of the basic necessities that are needed to survive, even if they are unable to work.
But we remained trapped in a very stuck situation. A person who is mentally disabled looks forward to a life of endlessly surviving on the bare edge, with only the minimum needed to get by. We are constantly faced with not having many of the things that money can buy — the things that many non-afflicted people would consider necessary. We are not an upwardly mobile group.
If I had one wish as to how things could change, I would ask that Social Security change their rules for working while disabled, in order to provide a more encouraging situation.
I have described the situation of economic hardship for those living with mental illness, but I have barely addressed all of the other hardships that exist in our lives. Just facing the symptoms of these disabling conditions means that we experience obstacles every day that go unrecognized by most people.
We are also a minority group that isn’t yet recognized as such; thus we are the recipients of many people’s overt hatred. It is still fashionable in many circles to bash and bully persons with mental illness.
People with mental or physical disabilities are often forced to live in institutional housing and to attend institutional therapy groups. These can deprive a person of much of their dignity. When attending these groups or living in institutional housing, we are often presumed to be incompetent and to have subnormal intelligence.
People with mental health issues often don’t have much to look forward to in life. If a person is impaired by their disability, they face a life of being supervised, restricted, controlled and deprived.
Persons with mental illness seem to be unwelcome at many places. People have approached me in numerous places to ask me what I’m doing there, as though I didn’t have a right to be anywhere. What is it about me that brings this mistreatment? Am I that frightening-looking?
Persons with mental disabilities have it hard. Our lot is worse than that of most of the people in the 99 percent who are upset about the top one percent hoarding the wealth. Maybe a movement is needed to seek justice for those at the bottom edge of the 99 percent.