(Rodney Bell)

If you are unable to work competitively due to a disability and you receive benefits because of this, it isn’t free money—it comes with certain costs. Disability benefits and SSI are set up to impose limitations in what you can and can’t do. If you receive SSI money, you are expected to be poor. If you do not want to be poor, and if you want to earn just a little bit of money to improve life conditions, the rules are set up to make this effort a lot harder. Once disabled, it is equivalent to a life sentence to being impoverished and restricted through economic and other mechanisms.

If you receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the maximum amount you can earn per month on top of your SSDI money without being cut off is currently about $1,170 per month. The Social Security Administration, under one of its defi- nitions, defines “substantial gainful activity”—the kind that could impede your benefits—as earning

‘America’s so-called safety net is set up to be a spider web from which we can never extricate ourselves.’

$1,180 or more per month. If your SSDI is about a thousand, you are left without much to live on. Yet, working more and earning more will jeopardize one’s Medicare benefits. Many disabled people can’t survive without Medicare.

In the above scenario, a person living in the San Francisco Bay Area would be unable to rent an apartment, would be hard put to maintain a car, and would be forced to live in deprived and difficult circumstances.

If you are doing too well economically or otherwise, including when this is through your own efforts, many agencies will deprioritize you. Under SSI, you are barely allowed to save up money. You are barely allowed to earn money, or if you do, you will ultimately be cut from benefits, and this includes essential medical insurance.

If we need to change residences, we must deal with a mountain of red tape. If you receive housing bene- fits under HUD, you must negotiate with the old and new landlord concerning the move. You must have the new unit pass inspection; you must somehow pay a deposit; where is that money going to come from? The amount of the deposit on an apartment usually exceeds the amount that you are permitted to own under SSI.

You must also do other paperwork associated with the requirements of the Housing Authority. This process can be frightening, because things can go wrong. You may also need to pay double rent while moving your belongings. Where is that money going to come from?

The overall system of providing for disabled and poor people is set up to produce restrictions. You can see this partly in the large number of mandatory appointments. You can see this in all of the require- ments to share personal and financial information. You can see this in how gainful employment is, in effect, punished and not rewarded.

America’s so-called safety net is set up to be a spider web from which we can never extricate our- selves. In a kinder society, people with disabilities would have a fair chance at bettering our conditions through our own hard work. As it stands, now, we are subject to a mild form of imprisonment, even if the prison bars are invisible and are made of societal mechanisms.

Although the Social Security Administration promulgates the assertion that their rules encourage work, this just isn’t so. As soon as you show that you can do work, or begin to earn even a minimal income, Social Security, the Housing Authority, and other agencies have rules that make life more difficult.

Jack Bragen is author of “Revising Behaviors that Don’t Work,” “Instructions for Dealing with Schizophrenia,” and “Jack Bragen’s 2021 Fiction Collection,” and lives in Martinez.