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A NAMI Voice: Unemployment and Poverty as the Results of Disability Policy

Until 2 months ago, I had been unemployed and unable to work due to serious mental health problems and some physical problems since 1981. For 21 of those 22 years, I have depended on SSDI and SSI for support, which combined, now provides me $572 a month, or under $7,000 a year. I have just finished a part-time, 3 month job as a subcontractor with my County. For this work, last month I received my first paycheck in 15 years.

I know poverty first hand. Living on less than $600 a month in an affluent County on the East Coast has been extremely challenging. I have had to rely on virtually every program and benefit available, including food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, a section 8 voucher that pays for the great majority of my rent for my one bedroom apartment in which I have lived independently for the past 15 years, other rental assistance, legal aid, donated dental programs, low-income energy assistance programs—you name it.

Everyday expenses, such as needing dental work, new glasses, replacing worn clothing, replacing broken appliances, etc., are prohibitive, let alone the ever-increasing cost of food, transportation, and housing. My parents have helped me out some, such as buying me a television and computer, and letting me use their car - things I could not possibly afford on my own. With the money from my first paycheck, it was a nice feeling to be able to go and buy some needed dishes for the first time in many years without worrying excessively over their $30 cost.

I have faced numerous barriers to employment. While I am currently in a supported employment program, they played no role in obtaining the three month contract job. In addition, I know all too well the catch-22 dilemmas of risking losing health coverage in order to work. In fact, I fear I will lose my Medicaid coverage from the contract job, even beyond its 3 month time frame, unless, that is, I am willing to not accumulate any savings beyond the $2,000 SSI asset limit.

I also face losing SSDI and Medicare if I continue working beyond this, and I do have possible opportunities for continued work, assuming I can get the hard-to-find supports I need to be able to do so.

What should I give up? My recovery? Productive work? Access to mental health treatment? Additional income support that permits me to eat every day and stay in my apartment?

Excerpt of comments presented by Randy, NAMI member and consumer advocate, at the NAMI national convention, Minneapolis, MN, June 29, 2003.

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