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Statement of Congressman Danny K. Davis In Opposition of H.R. 2792's Cuts to Supplemental Security Income for Vulnerable Seniors and Persons with Disabilities

As Prepared

Mr. Speaker, I yield myself such time as I may consume.

My mother used to say, “Right is right, if nobody’s right. And wrong is wrong if everybody’s wrong.”  H.R. 2792 is wrong.  It is cruel. It is discriminatory.

I strongly oppose this Republican effort to strip low-income seniors and those with severe disabilities of Supplemental Security Income benefits or SSI.  I join in opposition with over 110 civil rights, disability, and aging advocates who have warned that H.R. 2792’s harsh cuts will discriminate based on age, race, ethnicity, ability, and income, and will further criminalize poverty.  I also strongly oppose the Majority’s decision to condition the reauthorization of our successful home visiting program on this bill’s harm to the elderly and infirm. 

SSI is only available to people who are elderly or severely disabled and have little or no assets. The typical SSI recipient lives on less than $750 a month. So by design, H.R. 2792 will only harm very poor elderly and disabled people. Within the population of adult recipients of SSI, approximately 83% are disabled, one-third are age 65 and older, and two-thirds are age 50 and older. 

I reject proponents’ claims that this bill only targets fugitive felons.  In reality CURRENT law terminates benefits for fugitive felons. This bill strikes the current restriction against fugitive felons and instead expands the benefit cutoff beyond those who are actually fleeing to encompass everybody who had some unresolved run in with the justice system based on allegation, not conviction.

I reject proponents’ claim that only individuals charged with violent crimes or costly financial theft are affected by this bill.  By undermining the constitutional presumption of innocence and depriving individuals of due process via adjudication in a court of law, H.R. 2792 magnifies the deep inequities in our criminal justice system based on race, ethnicity, and income.  

As an African American man, I am very familiar with the decades of research documenting the racial/ethnic discrimination in our justice system.  As an advocate for criminal justice reform, I know the dozens of studies documenting the faulty criminal justice data systems on which benefit termination will pivot solely because this bill removes due process by adjudication. 

I reject proponents’ claim that no one who has a misdemeanor or a minor offense will be harmed. No uniform threshold for a felony exists.  Indeed, four states – Florida, Massachusetts, Virginia, New Jersey — have the lowest thresholds in the country defining felonies as losses of $300 or less – vastly different than the $2,500 thresholds set in Texas or Wisconsin.  This bill cuts off an elderly or disabled person’s lifeline benefits for a decades old offense of $300.

Also, we know that courts across the country are criminalizing poverty and raising revenue with fines and fees.  Individuals on probation for misdemeanor offenses (like vagrancy, shoplifting, traffic violations) get probation AND fines/fees.  When poor people can’t pay these fees, arrest warrants are issued for violation of their probation.  As in the past, H.R. 2792 clearly terminates SSI benefits for such alleged violations without any due process. 

I urge my colleagues to do what they know is right. Stand up for our most vulnerable citizens. Honor their most fundamental rights. Oppose H.R. 2792.

I reserve the balance of my time.

H.R. 2792 is a harsh, unfair bill. It would undermine the foundation of American justice – “Innocent until proven guilty.” And it would do so for Americans who are impoverished and already at a severe disadvantage because of age, disability, education, race, and ethnicity. It would strip people of basic income – in many cases, all they have to live on – based on a mere accusation.

I want to tell you about what happened the last time we tried this policy, before it was halted by the courts.

  • A 50 year old man lost his benefits because he failed to appear for a court date. Medical records indicated that he had been in a coma not long before the warrant was issued. He was able to breathe only with a long plastic tube surgically inserted in his throat and connected to an oxygen tank attached to his wheelchair.
  • An older woman had her benefits cut off because of a decade-old bounced check on a joint account with her ex-husband, which had occurred decades ago in another state. She didn’t know about the warrant until she lost her SSI and Medicaid, was unable to get medical treatment, and became blind in one eye.
  • In 2008, Rosa Martinez lost her SSI benefits, which were her sole source of income, because of a 1980 arrest warrant for a drug offense in Miami, Florida – even though she had never been to Miami, never been arrested, never used illegal drugs, and is eight inches shorter than the person identified in the warrant. It was only after filing a lawsuit that Ms. Martinez was able to receive her benefits. Her court case, Martinez v. Astrue, led to the termination this policy that the Majority is trying to reinstate.

I reject the Majority’s contention that people in nursing homes, people with dementia and cognitive impairments, and others with nowhere else to turn will not be harmed by this bill because of the very limited authority current law gives the Social Security Commissioner to issue “good cause exemptions.” We know the “good cause” process is complicated and very difficult to navigate. Not surprisingly, the last time the policy was in effect, only a tiny fraction of the people who lost their basic income were able to follow the instructions in the six page letter from SSA and apply for relief.

The good-cause “appeals process” the Majority repeatedly touts allows as few as 10 days before benefit termination. SSI recipients have extremely limited financial resources and are severely disabled or elderly. Resolving errors within the criminal justice system is a long-process that typically must be done in the geographic jurisdiction of the court and necessitates legal counsel.  This timeframe is nearly impossible. The average wait time for a Social Security appeal is currently 600 days, raising serious doubts about the Commissioner’s ability to prevent any harm.

The last time SSA followed this policy, it caused devastating hardship for tens of thousands of impoverished elderly and disabled people.  The goal of HR 2792 is the same – raise $2.1 billion dollars by cutting off benefits for tens of thousands of impoverished elderly and disabled people - be they cognitively impaired, victims of mistaken identity, facing homelessness, those who committed minor offenses, or those who are too poor to pay their court fees or fines. 

Mr. Speaker, there are no protections in this bill. Only harm for our most vulnerable citizens.

I urge my colleagues to vote no.

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    repName Danny K. Davis  
    helpWithFedAgencyAddress Chicago District Office
    2813-15 W. Fifth Avenue
    Chicago, Illinois 60612
    district 7th District of Illinois  
    academyUSCitizenDate July 1, 2017  
    academyAgeDate July 1, 2017  
    academyApplicationDueDate October 20, 2017  
    repStateABBR Il  
    repDistrict 7  
    repState Illinois  
    repDistrictText 7th  
    SponsoredBills Sponsored Bills  
    CoSponsoredBills Co-Sponsored Bills