How The Trump Administration Is Chipping Away at Social Security Benefits
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How The Trump Administration Is Chipping Away at Social Security Benefits

The Latest Move Will Deny Payments to Persons with Language Disabilities

David Cay Johnston

The Trump administration, continuing its assaults on the most vulnerable Americans, is now going after disabled people with limited English proficiency. Dependent children of people who become disabled are among those likely to be hurt by the new rule.

The rule, not yet in effect, would deny Social Security disability benefits to people whose language difficulty makes them unemployable in the market, but who Team Trump thinks should be able to find jobs where an inability to speak or understand instructions is only a minor problem, citing among other examples cook and gardener.

The justification makes no mention of whether people have the stamina, agility and muscle power to do such work, especially if they are disabled. Most recipients of Social Security Disability Insurance payments receive between $800 and $1,800 per month (the average for 2019 is $1,234).

The proposed rule change shows that no one is too poor, too powerless or too far down the economic ladder to escape Team Trump’s malicious attention.

The proposed rule contradicts another Trump rule change. Both rules are squarely aimed at immigrants.

The proposed Social Security rule change is the latest example showing that to Team Trump no one is too poor, too powerless or too far down the economic ladder to escape their malicious attention.

ACTION BOX/What You Can Do About It

The official comment period is closed, but you can still tell Acting Social Security Administrator Nancy Berryhill your thoughts.

Email her at Nancy.berryhill@ssa.gov or call her at (202) 358–6000. Write to her at Social Security Administration, Altmeyer Building, Suite 900, 6401 Security Blvd., Baltimore, Md. 21235.

Contact the Diverse Elders Coalition at 646-653-5015 or their website diverseelders.org.

People with difficulty speaking in any language could be denied benefits, opponents argue.

“We’re very concerned at how this administration is chipping away” at benefits for people, said Jenna McDavid of the Diverse Elders Coalition.

Hidden Intention

Buried deep in the Federal Register notice is the point of the rule change, which “would revise ‘Illiterate or unable to communicate in English’ to simply ‘Illiterate.’”

We’ve linked to the administration’s pending new rule explanation in the Federal Register, a difficult to comprehend government publication which I review frequently. This explanation stands out as one of the most verbose and obtuse proposed rule changes I’ve ever read because the explanation is designed to obscure the purpose.

The existing 40-year-old rule says “limited education means ability in reasoning, arithmetic, and language skills, but not enough to allow a person with these educational qualifications to do most of the more complex job duties needed in semi-skilled or skilled jobs.”

The rule change comes at a time when, the Trump administration says, the share of American workers with limited English proficiency is growing.

“The working-age population (ages 25–64) with [limited English proficiency] increased from approximately 5.4 to 17.8 million between 1980 and 2016, while more than doubling, from 5.1% to 10.5%, as a percentage of the population,” the notice of the proposed rule change stated. “Within this group, the number of individuals who spoke no English more than quadrupled from approximately 682,000 to 2.8 million” people.”

McDavid noted that the Trump administration has taken diametrically opposed positions on the value of English proficiency.

In a proposed rule to turn away people at the border, Team Trump asserted “an inability to speak and understand English may adversely affect whether an [immigrant] can obtain employment.” But in the proposed Social Security rule, McDavid pointed out, “the Administration claims that ability to speak English is irrelevant for an individual’s ability to find employment.”

No Definition of ‘Illiteracy’

One anonymous commentator noted that the proposed rule fails to define illiteracy. That would matter if the government argued that someone who can read and write in their native tongue is literate even if they cannot communicate in English, creating grounds to deny benefits.

About one in five Americans speak a language other than English at home. And about 25 million Americans, or one in 13, have limited proficiency in English.

Some of the 241 people who filed comments favor denying benefits to disabled people who are not proficient in English.

“There is no reason for them not to be able to communicate in the English language,” Peter Alamillo III wrote. “Children are taught English in school, either public or private. There is no reason for applicants for survivors [sic] benefits, etc. to have an inability to communicate in English.”

He said the proposed new rule “is a very prudent change that will help to save the SSA money for individuals and programs that truly need it instead of wasting it on foolhardy and unnecessary non-essential matters.”

Poor and Sick

Others noted that individuals lacking proficiency in English are more likely to be poor and suffer ill health, among them Karla Guerra, writing on behalf of a community organization in Oakland, Calif. “The implementation of this proposal would result in diminished opportunities for health for disabled LEP individuals and their families,” she wrote.

Emily Voelker complained that the new rule “would mean that over 10,000 disabled and low-English proficient workers per year would no longer qualify for and receive benefits when they are unable to work. It’s discrimination that helps no one – and only hurts people who are already vulnerable to prejudice.

Perhaps the most direct and damning comment was filed by Margo Vanderhill:

“This proposed rule is clearly discriminatory. Many Native Americans cannot speak English (due to living in very isolated regions). They are not immigrants yet [they] would be affected by this rule.

“Other immigrants (documented and legal) may not be able to speak English, but that in no way should bar them from assistance. They may be unable to speak English because of emotional or intellectual disabilities. That does not diminish their qualifications for disability.

The proposed rule change does indicate racial bias and Xenophobic attitudes for those proposing the change.”

Yup. That’s standard operating procedure for this administration, which propagates harm using language that even those highly proficient in English find nearly incomprehensible.

May 13, 2019