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Archive | Voices and Views

Social Security benefits for children with disabilities

By Vonda Van Til, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist 

SSA’s Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program helps children with qualifying disabilities and their families.  For this program, a child must meet all of the following requirements to be considered disabled and medically eligible: 

The child must have a medical condition, or a combination of conditions, that result in “marked and severe functional limitations.”  

This means that the condition(s) must very seriously limit the child’s activities. 

The child’s condition(s) must have been disabling, or be expected to be disabling, for at least 12 months; or the condition(s) must be expected to result in death.  

Compassionate Allowances are a way we quickly identify diseases and other medical conditions that, by definition, meet Social Security’s standards for disability benefits. Thousands of children receive benefits because they have one of the conditions on the list at www.ssa.gov/compassionateallowances/conditions.htm.

A child must also meet other eligibility requirements. Since we only pay SSI to disabled people with low income and limited resources, a child, who is not blind, must not be working or earning more than $1,260 a month in 2020. A child who is blind must not be working or earning more than $2,110. The earnings amount usually changes every year. In addition, if the parents of the child or children have more resources than are allowed, then the child or children will not qualify for SSI. You can read more about children’s benefits at www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10026.pdf.

Visit www.ssa.gov/people/parents/ to learn more about all we do to care for children.  Please share these resources if you know a family or friend who needs our help.

Vonda VanTil is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov.  

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New feature in My Social Security puts you in control

By Vonda Van Til, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist 

The future can be uncertain.  However, Social Security’s new Advance Designation program can help put you in control of your benefits if a time comes when you need a representative payee to help manage your money.  Advance Designation enables you to identify up to three people, in priority order, whom you would like to serve as your potential representative payee. 

The following people may choose an Advance Designation:

  • Adults applying for benefits who do not have a representative payee.
  • Adult beneficiaries or recipients who do not have a representative payee.
  • Emancipated minors applying for benefits who do not have a representative payee.
  • Emancipated minor beneficiaries or recipients who do not have a representative payee.
  • If you fall into one of the above categories, you may provide and update Advance Designation information when you:
  • File a claim for benefits online.
  • Use the application available in your personal my Social Security account at www.ssa.gov/myaccount.
  • Call us at 1-800-772-1213 (TTY 1-800-325-0778).

You may also change your Advance Designation(s), including the priority order, at any time while you are still capable of making your own decisions.  In the event that you can no longer make your own decisions, you and your family will have peace of mind knowing you already chose someone you trust to manage your benefits.

Vonda Van Til is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov.  

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Social Security and protecting elders from scams

By Vonda Van Til, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist 

June is World Elder Abuse Awareness Month.  Throughout the month, government agencies, businesses, and organizations sponsor events to unite communities, seniors, caregivers, governments, and the private sector to prevent the mistreatment of and violence against older people.    

Scammers often target older people.  They use fear to pressure people into providing personal information or money.  In times like the current pandemic when people are particularly vulnerable, scammers will pretend to be government employees, often from Social Security, to gain people’s trust to steal their money and personal information.  The most effective way to defeat scammers is by knowing how to identify scams then hanging up or ignoring the calls.

What you can do

If you get a Social Security scam phone call, hang up, report it to our law enforcement office at oig.ssa.gov, and tell your family and friends about it!  We’re telling as many people as we can that government agencies will never:

  • Tell you that your Social Security number has been suspended.
  • Tell you about crimes committed in your name, or offer to resolve identity theft or a benefit problem in exchange for payment.
  • Request a specific means of debt repayment, like a retail gift card, prepaid debit card, wire transfer, internet currency, or cash.
  • Insist on secrecy about a legal problem, or tell you to make up stories to tell family, friends, or store employees.

Scammers continue to develop new ways to mislead you.  They might use the names of Social Security officials and tell you to look them up on our public websites (where they learned the names themselves).  Or, they might email you official-looking documents with a letterhead that looks like it’s from Social Security or Social Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG).  Don’t believe them!  Social Security will NEVER email you attachments that have your personal information in them.

If you ever owe money to Social Security, the agency will mail you a letter, explaining your payment options and your appeal rights.  If you get a call about a Social Security problem, be very cautious.  If you do not have ongoing business with the agency, or if the caller mentions suspending your Social Security number or makes other threats, the call is likely a scam.  Ignore it, hang up, and report it to us at oig.ssa.gov.  We are working to stop the scams and educate people to avoid becoming victims.

Vonda VanTil is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov.  

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Change in auto insurance laws

From Sen. Peter MacGregor – Majority floor leader, 28th District

Dear Friend,

For years, Michigan’s broken auto insurance system meant we paid the highest rates in the nation by far. Too many Michigan residents were having to choose between insuring their car or paying their rent, buying groceries or paying for college. Thousands drove without insurance, putting themselves and everyone else on the road at tremendous risk.

Last year, Senate Republicans made reforming our insurance laws our top priority and passed Senate Bill 1 with bipartisan support. When the bill takes effect on July 1, 2020, you will finally be able to choose the coverage that best fits your needs and budget.

Before choosing a plan, you should consider:

  • The financial impacts and insurance protections of each personal injury protection (PIP) medical coverage level.
  • What is covered under your private health insurance plan, including information on auto accident injury coverage.
  • Individuals covered under your private health insurance plan.

I hope the brochure at https://misenategopcdn.s3.us-east-1.amazonaws.com/28/publications/20200609_AutoInsurance.pdf helps answer questions you may have about the changes coming to our auto insurance system. Before making a final decision, you should consult with an auto insurance agent, insurance company or financial advisor.

For more information on these new laws, including a list of insurance agents, visit Michigan.gov/AutoInsurance, email AutoInsurance@Michigan.gov or call 833-ASK-DIFS. You can also contact my office with any questions you may have.

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Access my Social Security from your home

By Vonda Vantil, Social Security Public Affairs Specialist

With so many services available online through my Social Security, signing up for a secure account will help you conduct Social Security business from home.  With your personal my Social Security account, you can:

  • Estimate your future benefits with our Retirement Calculator to compare different dates or ages to begin receiving benefits;
  • Check the status of your Social Security application;
  • Review your work history; and
  • Request a replacement Social Security card (in most States). 
  • If you already receive benefits, you can also:
  • Get a benefit verification or proof of income letter;
  • Set up or change your direct deposit;
  • Change your address; 
  • Request a replacement Medicarecard; and
  • Get a Social Security 1099 form (SSA-1099).

You can even use your personal my Social Security account to opt out of receiving certain notices by mail, such as the annual cost-of-living adjustments and the income-related monthly adjustment amount notice.  Instead, through the Message Center you can receive secure, sensitive communications.

Let your friends and family know that they can create a my Social Security account today at www.ssa.gov/myaccount

Vonda Van Til is the Public Affairs Specialist for West Michigan.  You can write her c/o Social Security Administration, 3045 Knapp NE, Grand Rapids MI 49525 or via email at vonda.vantil@ssa.gov.  

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Worrisome trends affecting representative democracy

By Lee H. Hamilton

We’ve seen plenty of evidence lately of the deep polarization in this country. Even in the midst of this crisis, national politicians, the political parties, and their adherents are finding plenty to fight over—even as, for the most part, ordinary Americans have been remarkably united and many governors and mayors have worked hard to handle the coronavirus pandemic competently and guided by expert advice.

The question as we look ahead is whether the trends we’d been seeing before the pandemic will reassert themselves, or instead there will be some sort of reset. Because those earlier trends are extremely worrisome.

For years now, it’s been common for politicians to label their rivals as unpatriotic and illegitimate. The deep freeze in cross-aisle relations in Congress had made progress there extremely difficult, though the crisis has given congressional leaders and members of the Trump Administration no choice but to keep bargaining until they hammer out agreements.

Other trends are equally problematic. The federal civil service, for instance, has always fielded a lot of very good people—dedicated public servants who try not to be partisan, remain independent in their views, and support the work of whichever administration is in power. They want to make government work better. That has gotten much harder to pull off in recent years, and the result is a civil service that is losing workers, institutional knowledge, and competence. There are still capable civil servants, many of whom have been doing their best to keep federal services on an even keel during this crisis, but it’s hard to escape the feeling that their impact has been diminished.

Likewise with the judiciary, which has become more politicized. It’s a worrisome trend in a branch of government that has generally stood for even-handed justice and, over the long term, strengthened Americans’ civil rights and civil liberties. The President, however, likes to say that his biggest achievement in office has been to put very conservative judges into power, a claim that undermines the judicial branch’s standing as the pillar of independence this country long depended upon. Ideology will always play a role in judicial choices but making judges more nakedly political is a destructive trend.

This extends to the media, as well. For whatever reason, it exercises less rigorous oversight of government, and what does exist is more partisan. While there’s coverage of national issues and politics, the trends have led to less robust local coverage, and a less healthy democracy.

As polarization has deepened, Congress has gridlocked, presidential power has expanded (not a new thing, by the way), and the government has become less responsive and less effective. It took a national crisis to lay bare some of these issues, but the trends underlying them have been going on for some time, and fixing them will take time, too.

This has to start with ordinary Americans. Voters need to reclaim our democracy and demand that the system that made us a great nation—one that adhered to the checks and balances and separate institutional responsibilities laid out in our Constitution—be restored. At the community, state, and federal levels, our job is to maintain the robustness of our institutions of government, agitate to ensure that they are performing as they should, and recognize that if the trends I’ve laid out strengthen their grip, our representative democracy will suffer. The threats may not be existential yet, but they could become so. 

Because here’s the thing. People may distrust government, but just as the pandemic has made clear that at bottom there’s no palatable alternative to an effective and competent government system, so it’s also true that the only way ultimately to solve the problems and worrisome trends of government is principally through government action. Which means that in the end, as citizens we have to forcefully step up to our responsibilities and insist that our public officials do so, too.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years. 

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Echoes of a bygone era

As I listen to the news about the coronavirus, I was reminded of a similar happening much closer to us in Cedar Springs. In 1884 a Diphtheria epidemic struck this community. The following is from a historical account written by Betty L. Heiss titled “Solon Township Out of the Wilderness” published in 1995.

“The Diphtheria epidemic occurred in1884 while William E. Davis was sexton. This dreaded disease was so infectious that when family members died, burials usually took place at night in unmarked graves. Those in need of the sexton’s assistance would come to the end of his driveway and ring the bell for William, who lived only one half mile from the cemetery. An excerpt taken from a family history written by his granddaughter Leona, relates what happened after her grandfather contacted that malady.

‘…so my grandmother sent the children to live in the barn until he recovered. She would take food to them part way and they would come the rest of the way to get it after she went back to the house. Fortunately, none of them got it, but when they returned to school they missed a lot of children. One family lost five children.’”

From 2004 until 2012 I had the privilege of serving as Solon Township Clerk. As part of my duties I was charged with keeping the records for the cemetery. During this time the Deputy Clerk and I spent many hours trying to put together accurate computer records of the cemetery. What we found out was there were many unmarked graves with the simple notation “baby” on an old oil skin map of the cemetery. I believe we counted nine.

On a second note I was driving through Cedar Springs recently and I couldn’t help but notice how empty it seemed. Hardly any cars and few people. While some people might think it reminds them of a ghost town, I thought of a bygone time. A time when I was growing up in the 50s. A Sunday when everyone went to church, had dinner with the family and no businesses were open.

Maybe God’s trying to tell us something and we’re so wrapped up in ourselves we forgot.

John W. Rideout                                                                                                                                      Solon Township

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Assurance of Easter

The threat of the COVID-19 virus and the assurance of Easter reminded me of the church hymn taken from 2 Chronicles 7:14: “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land” (KJV).

Lyle Perry Jr.

Cedar Springs

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You are essential!

By Sen. Peter MacGregor

Beyond the headlines of the COVID-19 crisis are the untold stories of how stress and uncertainty affect people’s mental health. Restrictions on our movement, assembling, jobs and daily routines compound the situation.

This unprecedented time spent away from work, church, school and the otherwise normal routines of life can understandably be challenging. The resulting isolation and anxiety are affecting people in ways they never could have expected or even thought possible.

It can be hard to come to grips with such a sudden and drastic change. One day things are great, and the next, you find yourself without work, struggling to figure out how to make a vehicle payment or pay rent, let alone afford groceries for a hungry family. If you’re lucky enough to have a job, the challenge of working remotely and in isolation can be daunting on one’s mental health. 

My heart breaks for the single moms who lost jobs that were deemed nonessential, and for the laid-off dads who worked hard so their wives could stay home with the kids. The employed are not without consequence, either. Physicians, nurses, first responders, grocery clerks, fast food workers, tellers and others who remain on the job bear the anxiety of becoming infected with every shift.

There is no question that the loss of life due to this pandemic is devastating. But the overall cost to everyone in our community in terms of quality of life and loss of well-being is an issue that cannot be ignored during this crisis. People with debt are three times more likely to have a mental health issue, especially depression, anxiety and psychotic disorders. Financial stress is the second most common cause of suicide, after depression.

Dr. Adam London, Ph.D., RS, DAAS, who is the director for the Kent County Health Department, recently joined me for a community tele-town hall on the coronavirus. He said suicide, alcohol, substance use disorder, child abuse/neglect and depression are real mental challenges people face every day because of the financial stress of the pandemic. 

“Mental health concerns have consistently been listed near the top of our community’s priorities whenever they are surveyed,” London said. “Our county and the state were faced with suicide and overdose epidemics long before anyone had heard of COVID-19. We need to be mindful that the stresses of this crisis are going to further exacerbate those problems.”

Depression, anxiety, domestic abuse, addictions, child and senior neglect, and suicide — these are all very real concerns under these troubled circumstances. It is no wonder that desperate calls to crisis support centers and suicide prevention hotlines have increased since COVID-19 began its destructive spread across the country. 

If you are an individual who finds yourself stuck in a battered relationship, fearful and unable to get out, there is help. If you or someone you know is having a hard time, you are not alone. And if you want to talk to someone, there are people who are available to help — who want nothing more than to see you well, and who will stop at nothing to help you get there. There are several state and national services that are available for people who may need help, including:

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services “warmline” for residents who have mental health needs during the COVID-19 pandemic. It is operated by certified peer support specialists and is available seven days a week, from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. Call 888-733-7753.

Michigan 211, which is available all day every day to connect with help of all kinds. Go to mi211.org or call 2-1-1. 

The Disaster Distress Helpline provides 24/7/365 crisis counseling and support to people experiencing emotional distress related to natural or human-caused disasters, like COVID-19. Call 800-985-5990 or visit https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/disaster-distress-helpline. 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24/7, free and confidential support for people in distress and prevention and crisis resources. Call 800-273-8255 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

The National Domestic Violence Hotline is available 24/7/365 to talk confidentially with anyone experiencing domestic violence, seeking resources or information, or questioning unhealthy aspects of their relationship. Call 800-799-7233 or visit thehotline.org.

Faith-based institutions and religious leaders can be of great benefit. Consider calling a local parish, church, or other place of worship for prayer or counseling. 

Your life has meaning and value. You are essential. Your family needs you. Your friends need you. Michigan needs you. This moment is but a page in the book that is your purposeful life. We are all in this together, and together we will get through it.

As we begin to see signs of hope, Michigan will find a safe path forward, focusing on the health of our residents. However, this will not be business as usual. As a state, we need to be open to different methods of delivering services and products, with particular focus on the big three: social distancing, wearing masks and washing our hands. We can do this! 

May God continue to bless our Michigan communities and our nation as we fight to overcome this horrible pandemic.

Senator Peter MacGregor, R-Rockford, is the Senate majority floor leader and chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Community Health and Human Services.

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How Congress has changed

Lee Hamilton

By Lee H. Hamilton, former U.S. Representative

If you feel like Congress has become less productive, less functional, and more partisan… you’re right. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how it’s changed over the years since I served there in the ‘60s to the ‘90s, and several issues help explain why it often struggles to get things done.

Heightened partisanship may top the list. Congress has always been a partisan organization; we’ve seen tense battles throughout its history. But now they’re more intense and occur more frequently. Members tend to see issues predominantly, though not completely, through a partisan lens.

This is reflected in their voting patterns. In the 1960s and 1970s, votes in which a majority of one party opposed a majority of the other occurred roughly one-third to one-half the time. Starting in the early ‘90s, that percentage rose into the 60 and 70 percent range. Add to this increasingly split control of Congress, with one party controlling the House and the other the Senate, and agreement becomes exceedingly difficult to find.

In many ways, this reflects the country at large. Though identification with a party or as an independent has tended to move a few percentage points over time, Americans of each party seem ever more firmly stuck in their own camps. It has become more difficult to resolve our differences, and this has undoubtedly contributed to congressional gridlock.

Years ago, the question that pervaded discussions on Capitol Hill was, “What can we do to resolve this problem?” Members were unwilling to accept stalemate or lack of agreement. Leaders at the time—people like Carl Albert and Tip O’Neill on the Democrats’ side and Bob Michel and John Anderson on the Republicans’—certainly had partisan differences, but these did not dominate the discussion. Behind closed doors they would discuss them civilly and politely, even going so far as to share private polling numbers.

At the same time that polarization has increased, Congress’s ambition has generally lessened. It’s almost inconceivable today that Congress would tackle a big issue—say, how to provide health care for older people—by trying to create something like Medicare. You see this same trend in oversight of the executive branch. There were committee chairmen who knew the ins and outs of the departments they oversaw down to the finest detail. They would spend days grilling administration witnesses (of even their own party), creating an extensive record of what an administration and its political appointees were trying to accomplish —information that helped ordinary Americans understand and judge the government’s approach. That is much harder to find today.

I think you can also detect the same trend at work in a diminishment of Congress’s oratorical ambitions. There was a time when members of Congress on both sides of the aisle considered Congress to be equal in stature to the President and the executive branch, and their speech-making reflected this: they saw strong oratory as a chance to encapsulate ideas and inspire Americans to rally behind them.

A key thing to remember is that this wasn’t just the speaker of the House or the majority leader of the Senate. Power and influence were spread more widely across both chambers. As the leadership in recent years has come to dominate the process, ordinary members find far fewer chances to shine. The collapse of what was known as the “regular order,” the committee work and amendment process that allowed ordinary members to participate in the deliberative work of Capitol Hill, has thoroughly concentrated power in the hands of leaders and made Congress less representative as a whole.

That trend has been accentuated by the extent to which money now talks at every stage of the process. It’s not just that members are constantly trying to raise campaign funds. It’s that the mix of who funds those campaigns has changed dramatically. In the late 1970s, according to the Brookings Institution’s Vital Statistics on Congress, labor and corporate PACs gave about equally. Now, corporate PACs account for the vast majority of all the money flowing to members’ campaigns.

The result of all this? Congress is still a vital part of our democracy, but it is by most measures a less effective one.

Lee Hamilton is a Senior Advisor for the Indiana University Center on Representative Government; a Distinguished Scholar at the IU Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies; and a Professor of Practice at the IU O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.

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