By Andrew Engelson
When Dawnetta Sparks, who lives in Spokane, became disabled several years ago, she qualified for Washington state’s Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program, which provides a small source of income to people who become temporarily disabled or are waiting to qualify for federal disability benefits.
Sparks said that she waited 18 months to finally receive Social Security disability support—and then, because of a quirk in the ABD program, she had to pay the the state of Washington nearly $4,000.
“When you have a limited income and you receive your payment and you have no other income at all, you can’t afford to pay for rent or the lights or nearly anything at all,” Sparks told the House human services committee in Olympia last week, “and then the first part of your money goes to pay back the state.”
A bill introduced by Rep. Emily Alvarado (D-34, West Seattle) would end the requirement that ABD beneficiaries pay back their benefits.
ABD is generally considered a “bridge” benefit to hold people over while they wait to qualify for Social Security disability. If a person is approved for federal disability benefits, they eventually receive a lump sum from the federal government to pay them for benefits they did not receive while waiting. So the logic is that because Social Security pays back those missed benefits, people need to pay the ABD benefits back to the state. But because ABD benefits are so low, people often use the lump sum payment from Social Security to pay for unmet needs or debts, such as medical bills or a rental deposit, that accumulated while they were surviving on ABD alone.
The Aged, Blind, and Disabled (ABD) cash assistance program has been underfunded for more than a decade: Starting in 2011, when benefits were slashed to help address a budget shortfall, ABD participants received just $197 a month, an amount the Department of Social and Health Services finally adjusted to $417 last year.
To recoup the ABD benefits it paid while people were waiting for Social Security to come through, the state garnishes recipients’ federal disability payments—which average just $900 a month—the same way a collection agency might garnish a person’s paycheck. For people who are living life on the margins, the process of paying back ABD often becomes a time of financial insecurity.
In addition, ABD has been underfunded for more than a decade: Starting in 2011, when benefits were slashed to help address a budget shortfall, ABD participants received just $197 a month, an amount the Department of Social and Health Services finally adjusted to $417 last year. “We know that it’s still not enough in many high-cost areas—like in my district—for people to cover their basic needs,” Alvarado said.
About 21,000 people in Washington currently receive ABD. According to figures from the Department of Social and Health Services, 57 percent of those receiving ABD have some form of mental illness, and 33 percent are homeless. Meanwhile, the average time to qualify for Social Security disability benefits has climbed to 147 days as the backlog of applications in the US has soared to more than 1 million.
ABD recipients are some of the lowest-income people in the state. “You essentially have to have almost zero or almost no income to qualify for ABD,” said Sara Robbins, a policy manager for the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, who once represented ABD recipients as an attorney. “When they got approved for Social Security,” Robbins said, “and found out that the state was taking some of their benefits to repay their back payment, it was really devastating for my clients.”
According to Alvarado, eliminating the pay-back requirement would cost about $20 million per year, a fairly modest slice of the state budget.
Alvarado, who’s in her first term, served as deputy director and director of Seattle’s Office of Housing. She said keenly aware of how flaws in the state’s ABD system sometimes push people into homelessness. “Every dollar in people’s pockets makes a difference to be able to help afford rent, to cover the cost of food, and to help cover basic necessities,” Alavarado said.
Those who receive ABD can also qualify for the state’s Housing and Essential Needs program (HEN), another cash benefit that helps extremely low-income people pay for rent, utilities, household items, and transportation. While HEN benefits can technically last up to 12 months, DSHS starts the clock ticking when someone applies for HEN. A bill sponsored by Sen. Claire Wilson (D-30, Auburn) would, in addition to reforming the ABD pay-back issue, also guarantee HEN benefits for a full 12 months, regardless of how long the application process takes.
Gov. Inslee’s proposed operating budget boasts about adding a permanent increase of $15 million to the HEN program, but Washington Low Income Housing Alliance noted in a press release that this is technically only a boost compared to 2019 levels. The baseline operating budget for the program is $104 million, and that jumped to $130 million in 2021– thanks to significant boosts from federal COVID-19 relief programs.
Michele Thomas, policy director for WLIHA, noted that despite the proposed baseline increase, Inslee’s 2023-25 budget would effectively result in an $11.5 million cut to HEN from the previous biennial budget, “which could critically affect access to housing,” Thomas said.