News /Growing number of consumers living below poverty line
People with mental health issues make up 36 percent of Social Security allocations — up from 24 percent two decades prior — and possess a standard of living that often falls below federal poverty guidelines, according to Alternatives presenters Donita Diamata and Amy Zulich.
With the federal poverty guideline set at $10,890 per year and Social Security payments set at $8,064 annually, consumers relying solely on government income face a deficit of more than $2,000 each year in meeting basic living expenses, according to Diamata.
In addition to not being able to afford the basics of food, medical care, and shelter, consumers find that their mental health conditions worsen with the stress brought about by poverty, Diamata said.
"The stress of poverty can worsen symptoms and impair basic functioning," Diamata said. "Mental health consumers are also more likely to engage in behaviors that risk physical health when in upsetting situations. These behaviors are not necessarily undertaken with harmful intent, but may be used as coping behaviors to provide comfort or relief from a situation perceived as inescapable."
Despite the fact that many people with mental health issues can and want to work and rise above Social Security, Zulich says it's not that simple.
Seventy percent of employers say they are reluctant to hire someone with a past psychiatric history, making it extremely difficult to break the cycle of poverty among people with mental health issues, according to Zulich.
If a consumer is hired somewhere, Zulich said, it is likely the job pays minimum wage and has minimal benefits, if any at all, which makes real and sustained recovery very difficult to achieve.
"The gap between Medicaid/Medicare income levels and private insurance is a real problem," Zulich said. "If you are hospitalized and don’t have insurance, you end up with a giant bill."
Housing is another widespread obstacle for consumers to overcome in achieving wellness, according to Diamata. In fact, she says it’s so common that the image of mental illness and homelessness often go hand-in-hand.
"When you search for images on poverty, homelessness, and mental illness, you start seeing many of the same pictures popping up,” Diamata said. “It’s depressing. Those things shouldn’t go together."
While those in need may turn to low-income housing, arrangements are anything but guaranteed, according to Diamata. Such housing is in short supply throughout the country and long waiting lists are common; California waiting lists are a minimum of one year to a high of 6-8 years.
For those trying their chances at renting, the stats are even bleaker. In 2010, a person receiving SSI needed to pay 112 percent of their monthly income for a 1-bedroom apartment and 99 percent for a studio or efficiency apartment, according to Diamata.
Conversely, Federal Housing Affordability guidelines state that low-income households should pay no more than 30 percent of monthly income, or $211 per month for SSI recipients, towards housing costs.
According to Zulich, numbers like these underscore the urgency and need to close the income gap, but multiple factors continue to prevent that from happening.
A widespread fear of losing benefits, lack of employment education resources, messages from society about never being able to work, increasing economic disparities, and the current economic crisis discourage many consumers from re-entering the workforce, Zulich said.
"Consumers are often strongly discouraged to regain control over their own money and are given little support to be successful with finances," Zulich said. "Prescription medications can make it difficult to think clearly and keep up on personal finances. In addition, many are told they will never be able to work, and maintaining disability benefits should be their goal."
It's a vicious cycle, Zulich says.
"It's impossible to be well if your basic needs aren’t met," Zulich said. "If you don't have access to food, medical care, safe housing, how do you build the rest of your recovery?"