Alcoholics, advocates wary of new welfare lawSeptember 30, 1996
Web posted at: 10:30 p.m. EDT
From Correspondent John Holliman
BALTIMORE (CNN) -- On Tuesday morning, October 1, 1996, fiscal year 1997 will begin, starting the ball rolling on welfare reform, including block-granting federal funds for the states to use in their own welfare programs.
For Harold Haddix, fiscal 1997 means relatively little, but he knows the welfare reforms could change his life. Just last week, Haddix left his roach-infested apartment of seven years for a cleaner, air-conditioned place nearby.
He was only able to make the move because a Baltimore social security worker stepped in and helped him file for disability. Haddix gets a $470 check every month from Uncle Sam because he's an alcoholic, and the federal government said his addiction was a disability.
A bill recently signed into law may take away his monthly check. The bill cuts federal disability payments to people whose only disability is addiction to drugs or alcohol. The measure was part of the Republican "Contract with America."
Since the bill was passed, the welfare community has been split over whether giving money to alcoholics and drug abusers helps or hurts their efforts to get better.
Every month, 200,000 Americans get supplemental security income (SSI) checks solely because they are too dependent on alcohol or drugs to hold a job. Haddix maintains that the checks, for him, meant the difference between life and death. (8 sec. /96K AIFF or WAV sound)
In January, addiction will no longer be an eligible disability for SSI benefits. Congress decided to take away alcoholics' eligibility after hearing a rash of horror stories about how some alcohol abusers use government checks to buy liquor.
Bob Cote is among Congressional supporters of this bill. Cote, who runs Step 13, an addiction treatment program in Denver, is a former alcoholic. He says he became an alcoholic for the same reason Harold Haddix did -- he loves to drink.
Cote argued that government payments going to homeless alcoholics, including his client Willard, do more harm than good.
"That money should be going to teach Willard some skill or something instead of killing him on the installment plan. He has cirrhosis, why in the world would you send a man an SSI check when he's in this shape, why? Forrest Gump could figure out something's wrong. The man's dying," he said.
Harold Haddix is looking for another way to continue getting disability benefits. The government estimates that up to 80 percent of addict recipients have another disability which will keep them on the SSI rolls.
Haddix's major fear now is that he may have to move onto the street when the bill takes effect, and his benefits run out. The bill is scheduled to take effect on January 1, 1997.
Some homeless advocates argue the SSI payments for addicts are hand-ups, not handouts. Jeff Singer, a worker at Healthcare for the Homeless, acknowledges that many people think alcoholics need a "swift kick" to get their acts together. For the people he sees every day, that will not work, he said.
"The people we work with are extremely disabled, and I would urge members of Congress, members of the Clinton Administration and others who have a negative feeling toward this program to meet our clients. ... We have a responsibility to help these folks."
Congress has settled the issue for now, but in the streets of Baltimore, Denver and hundreds of other cities, the problem remains, and the government's solution may be no cure.
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