CONCORD, N.H. — Legally blind since she was 9, Chrissy Fairbanks just got word she's losing the $363 state welfare check she got each month from New Hampshire because she gets federal assistance due to her disability.
The 31-year-old Keene resident says her girls, ages 11 and 12, are taking the news well that their clothes will come from the clearance rack and there will be no more trips to the ice skating rink.
"I already sat down with the girls and told them we were going to have a budget cut. The grabbing something to eat when we go out walking isn't going to happen," she said.
Of the 5,600 New Hampshire families that receive state welfare assistance, Fairbanks is among 1,136 families who will lose that aid because the state is counting Supplemental Security Income for residents too disabled to work in calculating their welfare grant. Another 420 people will receive reduced welfare benefits as a result, said state Family Assistance Director Terry Smith.
The law also affects two other groups by implementing a less generous application of how earnings are counted. As a result, 103 disabled people receiving state aid will lose their monthly grant, averaging about $115, while 260 will see their grants cut about $80 per month. Another five elderly residents will lose $126 per month in state help and 10 will have their monthly grants cut by $106. The state programs comply with a Social Security Act mandate to supplement federal disability programs.
Idaho is the only other state besides New Hampshire that includes SSI income in calculating household income to determine welfare eligibility, according to Liz Schott, senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. Schott said Idaho began including SSI income many years ago. Wisconsin and Alaska count some SSI income under certain circumstances. Last year, Washington welfare officials' attempt to count SSI income and shut off state welfare to 7,500 families was reversed by litigation and legislative action, said Schott.
Minnesota, West Virginia and North Carolina either tried or considered counting SSI income but rejected the policy, said Schott.
"It just penalizes the most vulnerable families. Of all the things states have done, very few have gone here," said Schott.
SSI is not Social Security and is not based on prior work. It is financed by general funds of the U.S. Treasury, according to the Social Security Administration. Adult recipients are people with limited income and resources who are disabled, blind or age 65 or older. Disabled children also can get SSI.
Those who receive SSI income range from people like Fairbanks with a physical disability to the mentally ill, said Michael Skibbie, policy director at the Disabilities Rights Center in New Hampshire.
"These benefit levels are fractions of what you or I would consider necessary for a reasonable life. People are realistically concerned about becoming homeless," he said of the state cuts.
Fairbanks' $698 monthly SSI check is above the $665 welfare threshold to qualify for assistance for her daughters under the Financial Assistance for Needy Families Program funded by the state and federal governments. The $363 welfare grant she was getting for them is 29 percent of her monthly income. Besides SSI and welfare, she gets $166 per month from their father's Social Security and $27 from a state program for the blind.
A single mother, she lives in subsidized housing, paying $314 per month rent for a three-bedroom apartment. She supplements her grocery bill with $193 each month in food stamps.
"I'm stressing about it," said Fairbanks, who is too disabled to work.
Democratic Gov. John Lynch counted on saving about $8 million in the $2.5 billion, two-year state tax-funded part of the budget enacted last June. The law change needed to implement the cut was delayed until this year due to an oversight. Fairbanks and the other families will feel the first effect of the cuts in March.
The state made difficult decisions given its limited resources, Lynch spokesman Colin Manning said.
"The state decided to include social security as income when determining eligibility because it is income and it would allow the state to stretch dollars to help more of our people," he said.
State Rep. Neal Kurk, a Weare Republican whose subcommittee handled that section in the House budget, agreed:
"We have scarce taxpayer resources and therefore we should devote them to those with the greatest financial need and to determine financial need we should consider all their income, not just some of it."
Bob Mack, president of the New Hampshire Local Welfare Association, which represents local welfare offices, said the cut could result in pressure being put on communities and their property taxpayers to make up for the lost income through local welfare.
Judy Silva, government affairs director for the New Hampshire Municipal Association, said state law requires communities to ensure citizens' basic needs are met, which can mean filling the gaps left by state and federal welfare programs.
"The cities and towns can't turn them away if they meet the financial guidelines," said Silva.
If people have enough money to cover their rent, but not for food and their electric bill, local welfare pays for it for as long as they need it, said Silva.
Jeff Butler, a 57-year-old disabled Hillsboro resident, is trying to figure out how his family will make up for the loss of $626 each month — 27 percent of the family's monthly income. He and his wife and three of their five children have disabilities that include depression, physical and learning disabilities. Butler said SSI income is designed to help the individual who can't work, not be spread over several others in a family. The disabled can't cope with income cuts like people without disabilities, he said.
"You can't pick up extra jobs to pay for it," he said.
Butler said he doesn't know what his family will cut.
"That's the thing about a really low-income budget, you learn to survive, to do whatever you have to do," he said. "Sometimes it means going to the food pantry more often."