For this week’s episode of Off-Kilter, Rebecca sat down with Jen Burdick, supervising attorney of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) unit at Community Legal Services (CLS), Rebecca’s legal aid alma mater. They had a far ranging conversation about how “eligibility doesn’t equal access” and other lessons Jen has learned throughout her years as a public benefits lawyer; the human consequences of a decade-plus of defunding the Social Security Administration, from years-long backlogs in disability cases to overpayments that wreak havoc in beneficiaries’ lives; how Jen combines her client representation with policy advocacy and why the perspective of direct service providers like legal aid lawyers is so valuable to shaping public policy and legislative reform; how outdated policies like outdated asset limits lead to inhumane surveillance of poor people’s finances; the toxicity of the collective limiting belief that poor families aren’t to be trusted with their own money, and how that shows up in the SSI program, through “dedicated accounts” that restrict how families are able to spend their benefits; and lots more.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome back to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and every week I go behind the music with visionary leaders and lightworkers working to reshape America’s off-kilter economy into one where everyone can thrive and access the shared abundance we all deserve. I think of it kind of like a weekly trip to the Marvel Universe, but the superheroes I get to talk with every week work with law and policy.
And for this week’s episode, I am incredibly excited to get to sit down with someone that I feel really lucky to get to work with and to have gotten to know over the years working on SSI, among other issues, and that’s Jen Burdick. She’s a supervising attorney in the SSI unit at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, my legal aid alma mater, so a place I have a lot of love in my heart for. In her role at CLS, Jen represents people who are struggling to access Supplemental Security Income, or SSI benefits, which is an issue extremely close to my heart, so I’m really looking forward to this conversation. Jen, welcome back to Off-Kilter!
JEN BURDICK: Hi, Rebecca. Thanks so much for having me. Really excited about it.
VALLAS: It’s so fun to get to talk with you, and I feel like we don’t get to talk often enough off the air either. So, I feel like this conversation is a catch up, in addition to being what I know is gonna be a fun and also probably fairly nerdy conversation from one public benefits lawyer to a former public benefits lawyer.
But before we get into SSI and the work that you do and some of the things that you and I thought might be fun to talk about, I wanna give you the chance to reintroduce yourself to Off-Kilter’s listeners and to share how you come to this work. The last time that you were on the show, if memory serves, we were talking about—this was a while back, and you were part of a panel conversation—we were talking about how eligibility doesn’t equal access. And we were especially talking about the Child Tax Credit, which was very hot back then. I think this was maybe 2021. But you’re, I mentioned, a legal aid lawyer at CLS. Talk a little bit about how you got to that work and how you come to this work.
BURDICK: Well, I’d be remiss to not start at the beginning, which was when I was in law school I interned at Community Legal Services with you, Rebecca. We were intern buddies, and we both were adjacent to the SSI unit where they were helping to have people secure benefits. That summer really lit a fire for me. I always knew that I wanted to do legal aid work, and I always knew I wanted to work on poverty. And in reality, SSI was a really good fit for me because I do have a history of having some disability in my immediate family that stopped one of my parents from working. I wasn’t in a position to seek public benefits. We did have the benefit of having financial resources to get through it, but it is a really, it’s a really hard spot to be in for anybody. And so, when I began, you know, when I found SSI, it really made sense to me immediately, like what the need is, why it’s so important to have an advocate to help people get through what is like a Byzantine process. It shouldn’t require a lawyer to get Social Security disability benefits, but it really does because it is so complicated.
And so, you and I worked together that summer, and then unfortunately, we graduated from law school, well timed with the [chuckles] last recession. So, I did not get to go to legal aid immediately. I ended up clerking for a year, which was a really fun experience. I worked for a senior appellate judge and learned a lot about a lot of different areas of law. And then although I tried to get back to legal aid, I couldn’t find a spot and ended up working in private practice at a big law firm for a while. All of which were really good experiences and really helped inform how I practice today. It gave me an opportunity to work on some really big cases, including some Guantanamo Bay cases, and learn a lot, so when I finally did get back to Community Legal Services in 2014, I was really ready to hit the ground running.
VALLAS: And I feel like you and I have had sort of a linked, we’ve had linked careers throughout the years, right? So, we had that shared internship summer, which I’m thinking, was that like 2008? Yeah.
VALLAS: Oh, my God. So, we were children. [laughing] We were actual children then. We were much younger, much hipper. And then when, so when you came over back to CLS in 2014, I had just left a couple years before that and come to D.C. and come to the Center for American Progress. So, I feel like we’ve sort of been playing leapfrog together a little bit and have stayed in touch over the years and have gotten to work together over the years.
I mentioned before that you’re a public benefits lawyer, which is sort of a broader category than just SSI. But I think it’s kind of an important category to highlight within legal aid because I referenced before that the last time you were on the podcast, we were talking about something, which the way I often describe it, is that eligibility doesn’t equal access. And what I’m referencing there is that we have all of these really important programs like SSI, but also like food assistance and Medicaid and all kinds of different supports that we as a society have seen fit to create over the decades to ensure that people are able to access basic needs. But a lot of those programs are really, really, really difficult to access. And you can be eligible for them under the law and under regulations, but you might not be able to actually access them. And that’s really why public benefits lawyers exist. That’s just to give the reason for being for the role that you play, for the role that I used to play. And so, I wanted to give you a chance to talk a little bit about what you’ve learned from being a public benefits lawyer and from your work with clients, and from your clients directly, about how our public assistance programs and our social insurance system works and how it doesn’t work. So, talk a little bit about that “eligibility doesn’t equal access” for some continuity from the last time I had you on the show.
BURDICK: I really like that phrasing ‘cause you’re right, I do public benefits. I don’t do all the public benefits, but I focus a lot of time on Social Security income. And then for a while I was spending a lot of time helping people access tax benefits. And the common thread is that people are eligible. And the reason these benefits exist is society acknowledges that it’s really important in certain situations for people to have access to cash and income in order to work. This is particularly true if you’re very low income, or for Social Security disability programs, if you have a disability that’s gonna keep you from working. But as you said, it’s so true. I work with so many people that clearly have significant medical impairments that are going to keep them from working. And even though we have a program that is designed, that’s whole mission is to help people in that circumstance, so many of them cannot access that on their own.
So, some of it is this simple, is thinking through implementation challenges, which sounds, all of these things sound minor and boring, but they can be huge obstacles in real life. Like, for some of my clients, when they apply for SSI, they go through a complicated application process, which usually involves a lot of paperwork and maybe an interview, but it’s not done. Then they’re sent a series of worksheets they have to fill out that are ten-page worksheets that are sent out to them that they’re supposed to complete. Sometimes they’re sent a directive that they have to go see a Social Security consultative doctor, and that’s also something they get in the mail. And the problem is when you’re dealing with the low-income population, a lot of people are precariously housed. They may not get the mail. Even having a representative to being another mailbox to be like, “You got this form. We need to complete it,” is essential because if it doesn’t get completed, their case will be denied without them even getting a fair shake. And it gets more complicated from there.
I mean, unfortunately, a lot of our public benefits systems thrive on this whole kind of correspondence process where they assume that people can get mail in English, read it, comprehend it, and do something about it. And so many people that are trying to address these systems, by definition can’t, you know. They’re applying for disability maybe because they have cognitive impairments that’s gonna make them understanding dense, not-plain-language letters about disability challenging, or going places, or maybe they’re limited English proficient. But it’s more than just the mail. It’s also understanding what to do with these directives, and attorneys can be really helpful there.
The other thing that’s really interesting, at least from an implementation perspective, is—and this is something that comes up a lot when I’m talking about disability generally—is that’s a very subjective word, and people have a lot of thoughts and feelings about what “disability” means. Social Security’s definitions are not intuitive. They exclude a lot of things, for example, like substance use disorder. Even though they’re very disabling, and everybody understands it’s a medical impairment, Social Security won’t consider. Other things Social Security considers in a different way. A good example is people with epilepsy or seizure disorders. Those are very significant, very disruptive. Social Security isn’t that concerned about them, except in certain circumstances. So, understanding the standard and helping people build their case towards that standard is really helpful ‘cause a lot of times people’s understanding of what’s limiting, although super important, isn’t going, you know, without proper framing, is not gonna meet Social Security’s standard even if they have impairments that meet that standard. And I know that’s confusing.
VALLAS: No, it’s a great jumping off point. And I feel like we’re actually gonna get into it some of these pieces more in depth. But I mean, another thing I often say in life, but also on this podcast, is that you shouldn’t have to be a lawyer to get disability benefits. And I feel like that’s some of what you’re really summing up beautifully, right, is just how hard a lot of this can be to navigate. It can be Kafkaesque, sometimes it’s described, by folks who try to access this system. It’s this kind of labyrinth of long paperwork, confusing steps. And if you miss any one part, you can end up not getting the survival income, which is what this really is for most folks, that you’re trying to tap into and that you’re technically eligible for.
So, I wanna give you a chance to talk a little bit about some of how this plays out for your clients. I don’t know, maybe you have a few examples of stories that bring this to life ‘cause it can get a little dehumanizing and theoretical just to describe it at a topline. But maybe make it real by bringing this into a few client examples.
BURDICK: Sure. And there’s a couple different types of things. So, for example, one client I was thinking a lot about recently applied for Disability. She’s a mom, but she’s in shelter. She’s separated from her child right now. She applied, sent in paperwork—I don’t know exactly what happened with the forms—and she was denied. This was before she came to us. But she didn’t get the denial because she’s in shelter, and whatever address she gave was not the shelter she was at, at the time they made the denial. And part of the reason it was that it took them 11 months to make a decision on her initial application, which is just a really, really long time, because there’s currently really, really long delays at the first level of review for Social Security applications. But then she didn’t see it, came to us about a year later. We saw the old application that wasn’t appealed on time. We were able to restore the old application in order to appeal. And again, it took another 11 months for them to make a decision on reconsideration. However, at least with the second bout on the first level of review, we were involved. So, she was moving shelter to shelter. And during that time, each time she got a form, I could reach out and be like, “We need to fill this out now, talk about what sort of treatment.”
So, another big barrier that people don’t always realize is you may have a lot of diagnoses and a lot of problems, but particularly if you’re facing stressful circumstances, if you’re unhoused, or if maybe you’ve just seen too many providers over the years, you might not be in treatment currently. But that’s what Social Security wants to look at. They wanna look at current treatment. So, helping people get back into treatment so that we have records relating to the disorders that they have is really important, and that’s something that we did there. So, I think she’s a good example of how these really long delays are really impacting people. She remains in shelter. We’re now appealing for her to go before an administrative law judge. But—
VALLAS: Just to stop you there for just a second, Jen, I mean, so, I mean, it’s heartbreaking, right, to hear these stories. And for folks who don’t do direct service work, just like, I feel like I wanna let folks sit with that and take that in ‘cause it’s this horrific set of facts that also is more the norm than the exception, right? And it’s worth naming that it shouldn’t have to be that way, that people are waiting 11 months for a decision on basic survival income, and then they miss something in the mail, and then it’s another 11 months. That also, it hasn’t always been that way. That’s the direct result of decades of underfunding, or I should say not decades, a little over a decade of underfunding the Social Security Administration and not, it’s Congress not giving it the administrative dollars that it needs to be able to keep up with these really important cases. So, that’s not just like, “Oh, that’s how it is.” That’s how we’ve allowed it to become. And I feel like that’s worth naming given that it doesn’t have to be that way.
BURDICK: Absolutely. And another thing I’d be remiss not to talk about—and I’ll bring up another relevant client story—is the importance of appealing in this process. A lot of people apply. It is a hard, the application process is complicated, right? If you have a long work history, there is an online form, but not for anyone else. If you’re going for SSI, and you don’t have a long work history, or you’re applying for a child, you’re going to have to have some sort of interview with a Social Security claims representative, which can be hard to schedule. If you call, there’s long holds. If you go into the office, they’re so backed up that they probably can’t take the interview that day. They have a new protective filing tool where people can fill out a brief form online and then get an interview date in the mail. But that also requires you having consistent mail access. But no, you see people get through this whole process, and if they wait all the time that you wait and get a denial, sometimes it can really deter them.
However, as you know, statistically, you really need to appeal two times and get a hearing before a judge in order to be found eligible. And a good example is I had this client. She was in her mid-30s working full-time as a housekeeper at a hotel when she started having unpredictable fainting spells. She eventually got diagnosed with an atypical form of POTS, which is a nervous system disorder, and her doctors told her to stop working. I mean, once at work, she fell down a flight of concrete stairs. Her employer agreed. They felt like having her there was a safety risk. But she has multiple children, and she went from working full-time to being very stressed about how she was gonna pay rent and keep food on her table. We did eventually get her SSI. It was a while ago, so the wait wasn’t as long, but it still took almost a year and a half. And during that time she applied, and like 70 percent of all applicants, she was denied, even though her POTS, it’s pretty clear it’s severe, and this will eventually make her eligible. Then she had a reconsideration review, which also took several months. She got denied again. And part of the problem is this is a disorder that Social Security doesn’t have a lot of guidance on, so it took until we got to a judge who was like, “Well, if she’s gonna unpredictably faint, there is no employer that’s gonna feel comfortable employing her, right?” And there was an expert who immediately said, “Correct. Hearing over,” right? It’s…. But I bring this up because if you do have people listening who are thinking about this process or helping someone with this process, I think it’s really important to let people know they have to appeal. They cannot get deterred. Because 50 percent of people are awarded after they get to that hearing, if they can get to that, through that long wait to get to a hearing.
VALLAS: Well, and it is. It can be incredibly discouraging, right? And I feel like that’s often what I remember having to counsel people on when I was doing community education back when I was still in Philly, working with the Community Legal Services folks. It was we would have to say to community groups, “Tell everyone you have to appeal because most people are going to be denied, and you just have to expect to be denied, even if that’s actually not the right decision. And ultimately, you are going to be found eligible.” Again, it shouldn’t have to be that way. It doesn’t have to be that way. But that is the system that we have set up right now. I often talk on this podcast about bureaucratic disentitlement, and this is just another example of how that manifests within these systems.
Jen, you’ve been talking a little bit about some of the human consequences, as I think about it, of underfunding the Social Security Administration, which is what a lot of this comes from, not all of it, but a lot of it comes from you were describing piles of paper on people’s desk and backlogs that are just really inhumane. Another thing we should probably name is that according to the Government Accountability Office—and this is the statistic that always kind of rings in my head when we’re talking about the human consequences of underfunding SSA—about 10,000 people die every single year waiting for disability benefits, right? So, it’s not just about being deeply impoverished and left in situations where people can’t even meet their basic needs. It’s also literally people dying, waiting for benefits. And I’ll never forget the first time I had a client who died while I was representing him, waiting for his benefits, living in just total squalor that should not have had to be the way that it was.
But another major consequence of underfunding SSA is something you and I have both actually been thinking and talking a lot about, including with some recent reporters who have been wanting to focus on this, including a great piece in Kaiser Health News that we’ll put in the show notes, and that’s overpayments. People getting overpaid, meaning that they’re being paid the wrong amount of SSI for however much amount of time because SSA hasn’t caught up with a change that they reported or something else. And those overpayments can actually really hurt people because then they end up in kind of a separate Kafkaesque nightmare, right? And these are the people who are lucky enough to have been found eligible in the first place. Talk a little bit about this situation of overpayments, what we know about this. This is a big part of your work as well, ‘cause you don’t just help people access these programs, you also represent people who are beneficiaries but who run into problems with their benefits. And this is one of those examples. Talk a little bit about overpayments and how they impact people.
BURDICK: I’d love to. I mean, just big picture, the overpayment system and how it works is one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen in my adult life. It is just so Kafkaesque, to use that term. But I mean, the overpayment system…it harms people in so many ways. So, as you said, sometimes, SSI in particular has very, very strict income and resource limits. So, you can’t get more than about $914 a month without there needing to be a cut in your income. If you’re getting any income, they’re supposed to reduce what you get each month dollar for dollar, and you can’t have resources that are more than $2,000 at all. That includes any savings you have, but also other things that have value, so not your first car, but your second car. If you happen to get an inheritance. One thing that really trips people up is life insurance policies, because whole life has a cash value that nobody thinks about ‘cause that’s not why they’re getting their life insurance policy. But regardless.
So, with that level setting, there’s a lot of different ways where people can be overpaid. For a lot of my younger clients, maybe they’re working part-time, and even if they are being good in reporting their income to SSA, it can take them a really long time to process those wage reports, so they keep paying them the full amount, even though they’re reporting, and then come back to them way later, long after the money is gone, saying, actually, oops. You told us you had that part-time supported job at CVS, but we didn’t reduce your income, so now we need you to pay it back. That’s like the more benign but very common version. And for some people it’ll be a notice they get that says, twenty years ago, we found evidence that there’s this life insurance policy that’s worth more than $2,000. So, you actually shouldn’t have gotten any of the benefits you got the last 20 years. Please repay us $200,000 by next Tuesday, right?
So, one of the ways, even when the overpayments are correct, which is not always—there’s lots of errors in the system—one of the ways I find these to be very harmful is they’re very stressful. SSA sends these nasty grams to claimants saying, you owe me a ton of money. Please pay it back immediately. And there sometimes is some information in there about what else they can do, which is you can appeal if you think it’s incorrect. There is a process to ask for SSA to forgive the money. In some cases, they recently finally disclosed that there’s a process if your overpayment’s less than $1,000, that if you raise your hand and say, “I’d like that to go away,” SSA’s supposed to just make it go away. But all of that is behind this notice that says you owe me a ton of money, and it causes such anxiety and concern among the people I represent that they often can’t process the rest of it, right? So, that’s one way that it harms people.
But then there’s also much more tangible ways. If you are working and this overpayment is not resolved, SSA will just take your tax refund, right, to help repay that, and you can’t contest it. And in some cases, they will actually send your debt to debt agencies, and so it will impact your credit score. So, I’ve seen cases where people had incorrect overpayments that they didn’t deal with, but then it affected them down the line when they needed to access credit, maybe to get their first house or first car. So, overpayments really can harm people a lot of different ways. And this is one of those processes where you really need assistance, even though most people can’t get any assistance ‘cause there’s really no way for a paid attorney to get involved in this. And there aren’t enough legal aid attorneys that will take this stuff for free.
But it’s so confusing. Like, what’s the difference between a reconsideration, which means appeal, and a waiver, and what are the circumstances? And even the standards for those things don’t make sense. If you read the standard for an overpayment waiver, it’s, you know, “defeat the purposes of the act.” That is not plain language. Nobody understands what that means. And all of it’s extremely stressful. So, even people who have good arguments for waiving their overpayment are gonna have a hard time being successful because they’re not gonna frame their arguments in terms that make sense to Social Security’s standard.
So, in addition to all of that, one thing that is wild is these take years and years to process. I have overpayment waivers that I filed for clients in 2019 that have not been decided yet, even though we follow up like every two months. And one I get really worried about, it’s for a current college student who is looking to access, you know, she’s not on benefits anymore. Her disability resolved. So instead, they said she was overpaid for some benefits we got while we were appealing. But now she’s going, you know, she’s trying to get grad school loans, do all these things a lot of people like to do, and she has this kind of financial scar on her record, mostly because SSA has delayed in processing our request.
VALLAS: Oh, there’s so much there that I wanna get into with you. And so, and just even hearing you describe this, it’s bringing back so many memories of back when I used to handle these cases. Because, I mean, and that was one of the biggest parts, and probably the most frustrating parts of my caseload as a public benefits attorney was these awful overpayment cases. So, just to try to cut through some of the legalese for a minute, right, I feel like the place to start is, most of the, a lot of the time these are situations where people did everything right, and they faithfully reported their earnings, or they reported a change in their living situation or whatever the thing is that triggers the alleged overpayment. And they still get hit with an overpayment because, back to the conversation we were having about SSA being underfunded and under-resourced, they are often behind in dealing with processing the changes that get reported. And so, they might not change how much someone’s benefits are even though they’ve been faithfully reporting their earnings. They catch up to it at some later date, and then boom, they send this really scary notice. I mean, I have memories of clients walking into my office and holding these really thick packets of—’cause it’s not just a page of paper, right? It’s a whole packet that they send you—and they’re holding it, and they’re shaking and they’re crying and they’re going, “They want me to repay how much?! Do they think I’m just sitting on some pile of cash?” And like you said, they demand repayment immediately. So, really scary. And I feel like that’s an important thing to emphasize as we’re kind of grounding this in the human experience of this.
But I also just really wanna come back to, again, a lot of these situations are ones where people haven’t done anything wrong, right? It’s like sometimes you hear the word “overpayment,” and people might be going like, “Oh, is that a form of fraud? Or does that mean the person was trying to cheat the government?” No! These are just people trying to get by, and somehow one of the many arcane rules within this system ends up triggering an overpayment.
But the other thing I wanna give you a chance to talk about, ‘cause this connects to another issue you and I work on is, honestly, the root cause of a lot of these overpayments is just how nightmarishly bureaucratic and also how outdated a lot of the rules in the Supplemental Security Income Program are. So, for example, something that I’ve talked a lot about on this podcast is asset limits that haven’t been updated since 1984, literally the year I was born, and probably close to when you were born too, ‘cause we’re on similar career trajectories. And so, if you end up with just a few dollars more in the bank than $2,000, you’re gonna get hit with one of these overpayments for however long you had a few extra dollars in the bank beyond what you were allowed to have. So really, I like to come back to that root cause of the problem too, because if we were to update a whole bunch of rules in SSI, and frankly, simplify a lot of the really bureaucratic rules in SSI, we wouldn’t have all these overpayments, and SSA wouldn’t be chasing people for money that they’re required to tell them that they owe. I’m curious your thoughts on some of my take and whether you see it differently.
BURDICK: I absolutely agree with your take. And one thing that’s, [sighs] what’s so frustrating about the resource limit, right, is SSA is telling people who receive SSI that at no point can they have less than $2,000. Well, you know as well as I do that most emergencies cost more than $2,000. If you need to do a lot of work on your car, it might cost more than $2,000. If you need to replace a roof, it might cost more than $2,000, or other home improvements. And a lot of the people who receive these benefits, they need the monthly benefits, but they’re going to face real-life emergencies just like everyone else. So, kind of at the height of shutdown, one of my child client’s parents got one of these overpayment notices, but they actually cut them off entirely, saying, oops, you had too much money for more than 12 months. So, they disqualified this family for SSI because they believed that the family had $10,000 in their bank account. And so, part of the problem with these policies is SSA’s constantly auditing everyone’s bank accounts. And it’s true. They did get money in their bank account, but actually, it wasn’t a resource ‘cause it was a loan. It was a loan that my client’s mom had to take out from a friend because her roof caved in, and she needed to hire a roofer, right? I mean, everything was at home at that point. The child was doing school at home over Zoom. It was really important to get that done. So, SSA had done whatever sort of data exchange they got, saw the money. It was about a year ago. They’re like, we’re just cutting him off. So now, this family is out of their life-sustaining income. And it took us seven months to unravel this and get the child reinstated to prove that no, no, no. This wasn’t a real resource. This was a loan. ‘Cause it’s different. She has to repay it. And that…you know….
[sighs] What was frustrating about it is SSA shouldn’t have been involved in this anyways. But the reason they were is they’re being forced to audit everyone’s bank accounts for such small amounts of money. This is exactly a circumstance where had the resource limit been higher, they wouldn’t have been involved. This child never would have lost access to their SSI benefits, which also disconnected him from Medicaid. It was really a nightmare. But the family wouldn’t have had to do all this work. And I think I calculated. It took like 55 hours for us to figure this out for them, which is such a waste of time on our end, but also on Social Security’s end as they were trying to process all this paperwork and understand the mistake. But what other thing was she supposed to do? I mean, her other alternative was to save up money for the roof, but that also would’ve been a resource problem. Basically, there’s no way for her to repair the roof without losing the money they need to stay in the house. Which just seems like bad policy. And I mean, we know it’s bad policy, but it just, it doesn’t, just it’s nonsensical policy. We want people to be able to take care of these emergencies.
VALLAS: It forces people into impossible decisions, like you’re saying. You know, do we maintain the survival income that’s helping us keep a roof over our heads, or do we repair the roof over our heads, right? I mean, that’s inane. And also, always worth reminding, it’s not actually what Congress even intended in creating this program in 1972, because they set the asset limits at a level that is not actually all that different from where they are today. The difference is that they haven’t caught up with inflation. Congress made the mistake—because this was back in the ‘70s before policymakers really understood that they needed to index things to inflation—they made the mistake of not indexing these limits to inflation. And so, what that has meant is that the limits have just not budged because Congress hasn’t acted. And it shouldn’t be that Congress has to go in and legislate every time we need to raise the asset limits and other key elements of this program.
There’s a piece of legislation that you’ve been doing a lot of work on, I’ve been doing a lot of work on, other people who have been on this show, like Kathleen Romig, who was on a few months ago, have been doing a lot of work on called the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act. I will name that as much as Congress feels very broken in a lot of ways right now, that is one bright spot to me. It’s a piece of bipartisan legislation led by Sherrod Brown, our dear, lovely friend and champion of these issues and programs, Senator Sherrod Brown, who leads the Social Security subcommittee of the Senate Finance Committee over in the Senate. He’s leading it with Bill Cassidy, a Republican from Louisiana, so it’s bipartisan legislation. There are a couple of House champions as well who have a House companion. So, I’ll give a shoutout to Congressman Fitzpatrick and Congressman Clay Higgins as well in the House. And that legislation would update SSI’s asset limits to $10,000 for an individual, $20,000 for a couple, so that instead of being stuck at these 1984 levels, we would at least see those limits updated for inflation. In my personal opinion, better policy would be eliminate the asset limits altogether and get SSA out of the business of constant forced surveillance of poor people. But short of that, this would at least update those limits for inflation and index them moving forward so that we wouldn’t see people put in these ridiculous, impossible situations like you’ve described with your client. And it would be good for Social Security as well, for the Social Security Administration, because a huge workload for them of monitoring, as you said, people’s bank accounts would really be lessened in a significant way.
Jen, I wanna also turn to one other thing that I know you and I wanted to talk about before we get into a lightning round where I ask you some questions about you and make you feel super uncomfortable— Hi, Kitty. Ooh, we have a kitty on the screen, which makes me very excited. So, the other thing I wanted to bring into this conversation and that you and I talked a little bit about before as something that could be a good place to go is, so folks who listen to this show regularly will be familiar that I often like to talk with guests about toxic limiting beliefs that we as a collective most need to identify and make visible and release and replace so that we can actually get to a place where we build an economy that’s more equitable and where people are actually free. One of those limiting beliefs that is very much relevant within the SSI program that you and I have been talking about, and which is very relevant in the work that you do, is really that poor people aren’t to be trusted with their own money. And one of the ways that that shows up within SSI, in addition to so many of the other things we’ve been talking about, is actually a policy that gets a little wonky, but I feel like it’s worth you breaking down so people can hear about this. And that’s called dedicated accounts. This comes into play, especially where we’ve got families with a disabled child who receives SSI. Do you, so, I’m first gonna ask you, do you think it’s fair for me to name that we have as a limiting belief as a collective that poor people aren’t to be trusted with their own money? And just curious your thoughts as a public benefits lawyer on that piece as we get into talking about this idea of dedicated accounts, which in my opinion, is just one of many examples of how policy reinforces and is premised on that limiting belief.
BURDICK: Absolutely. I mean, I think there is a limiting belief that poor people cannot manage their money appropriately. And I think there’s a companion limiting belief that poor parents are not going to use benefits for their children appropriately. And it’s pervasive. I was just talking to someone yesterday who was trying to explain to me that poverty for most families is, it’s not really, it’s chosen. It’s a priorities issue. And let me tell you, when people are getting $914 a month, you may not agree with every choice they make, but trust me, they are using that money towards their priorities, right? And I feel like this constant belief that we shouldn’t, you know, that we should be policing other people’s priorities is really problematic, particularly in this space, because among other things, it creates overly complex and ridiculous policy, which we’re about to discuss, one of my least favorite policies. Is it okay if I describe what dedicated accounts are?
VALLAS: I think totally, because honestly, this is probably something people who don’t do this work are not familiar with and maybe never have heard of. People are, like, another example of policy that is premised on and reinforces the notion that poor people can’t be trusted with their own money and won’t make good choices is like, limitations in what people are allowed to spend food assistance on, right? That’s probably a lot better known than what you’re about to talk about. So, take us there.
BURDICK: Okay. So, when you apply for a child to get SSI benefits based on their impairment, usually it takes a long time, as we discussed. There’s long delays. So, even if that child gets approved for benefits in October 2023, like, we had a hearing, they say, “Yes, this child has very significant intellectual disability, cerebral palsy. We’re gonna approve them for benefits,” it probably took us at least ten months to get there. So, in addition to getting money going forward every month starting this November, they’re going to give ten months in back benefits. Now, and this happens for adults, too. The difference is, whereas adults are given their retro money and told to just spend it in the next year, parents are given the back benefits with a number of significant limitations. First of all, they’re given it in three installments, which is important because it means SSA can audit whether they’re meeting these ridiculous limitations and not give them any more if they don’t. But so, they have to create a bank account. Parents who are completely unbanked and unable to access banks just don’t get this back money. And then even if you get the bank account, they say, okay, you get this money, but you’re only allowed to spend it on expenses related to the medical condition, and they cannot be daily expenses. So, it cannot go towards daily food, housing, or clothing, even though that’s often what parents need the money for, right? If they’ve been waiting forever for this money, they often have, you are allowed to apply it to debt for some reason, but you can’t apply it to meet these daily needs.
So, what are medical expenses? Well, that’s one of the things that’s really challenging. I think a lot of people, when they envision that, they envision maybe like buying a wheelchair or helping to pay for a ramp to your house. And maybe. Maybe those are things the family are looking at, and maybe they could use that money that way. But a lot of kids who get disability benefits don’t have expenses relate to their impairment that Medicaid doesn’t cover, or that’s not their most pressing need. So sometimes, they just need food, right? Or sometimes if you have a kid with a sensory disorder, the family’s like, “Well, it’s not, it’s a daily expense, but I buy special food for my kid that is more expensive.” And sometimes you can get SSA to say that’s okay. But in order to do that, the family needs to call or write a letter to their claims representative and have a back and forth with the overworked, understaffed Social Security field office to tell them, “All right, you gave me my first installment of $2,000. Here is my receipt to say the first $500 went to four months of special food for my kid.” And the claims rep can say yes or no to that, and it’s very hard to appeal.
So, what is the result? It’s a few things. First of all, a number of my parents will get that back money. They’ll remember that it has to go to this specific child, and they’ll spend it on the specific child. But sometimes it will go to daily things, right? It’ll just go to clothes, it’ll go to food, maybe it’ll go for a new bed set or something. And Social Security will say, oh, they come to audit the parent to say, “How did you spend that first installment?” And if their receipts do not show medical-related expenses, they will not release the next payments. And many of my families get really deterred, and they just never get the rest of the money, which I find very frustrating.
VALLAS: It’s just wild, right? And so, just to restate and summarize some of what you’re saying, I mean, we’re talking about money that people are finally getting paid after having to go through God knows what to access these benefits, and often these back benefits build up because of how long it takes to be able to actually access the money! And then instead of being able to use them on basic living expenses, basic survival income, they’re told, no, you can’t do that. You can only use it for this narrow set of permissible purposes. And so, not being able to spend it on food, not being able to spend it on shelter? I mean, this stuff, this is like what drives me up the wall. And you’re offering a couple of examples to bring that home. But that’s really what we’re talking about here, right, is banning people from spending this money on basic living expenses.
BURDICK: Sometimes it’s more complicated than that. And I will just point out, ‘cause I think it’s fair, you know, I have an example this summer where we won benefits, and the SSI recipient’s birthday was coming up. So, even though we talked about it, and I’m like, “This isn’t a medical expense,” the family went ahead and bought her I think it was like a switch or something, whatever. She’d wanted it for years. And I understand Social Security will say, well, that’s not necessary. But honestly, to a kid who’s been trying to keep up with her peers for years, maybe that was necessary, right? [voice tenses and cracks] And why does Social Security get to say when this family finally gets a small pocket of resources, that SSA has a better sense of what the priority is? This is what gets really frustrating. I’ve started tearing up. It really, it really made me angry. Where I’m just like, I don’t know, I’m a parent. Like, I understand that some people might not understand my priorities. That doesn’t mean they’re not right. And most of my families absolutely know what they need, right? And they know what their kids need. And sometimes it is something we all identify as a basic need. And sometimes Mom really needs to get that kid an iPad because they, or some sort of tablet, because they have a defiance disorder, and there’s no other way to keep that kid calm while they’re waiting in line for their SNAP benefits and other things.
And I just, I really need SSA to get out of the business of telling families what is the most important thing for them to do with a very small, finite amount of resources that they’re eligible for. This is money that they determined they were eligible for, and in any other context, they could spend any way they want. But in addition to being really problematic, I mean, there’s been some recent reporting that shows that lots and lots of parents absolutely don’t get this money. They’re already overworked and overstressed. And once they start engaging in some of these processes, they just give up. Which is…probably one of the clearest forms of bureaucratic disentitlement that I see where literally, Social Security just holds onto the money because people get too tired of fighting about whether they spent their money appropriately.
VALLAS: Yep, yep, yep. And I am so glad that you brought in— And I’m feeling the emotion that you’re experiencing right now because this stuff is really heartbreaking. And it’s, but also, again, with the, it doesn’t have to be this way, right? Aw, I’m so glad you brought in this story about a family wanting to buy their kid a birthday present. I mean, what a, just what a perfect example of parents knowing best about what’s right for their kid. And this is a government agency policing what parents are able to spend their own money on. And this is their money. At the time that they’re found eligible, this becomes their money. But it isn’t, right? It’s their money with an asterisk.
So, Jen, I’m so grateful for all that you’ve shared and brought into this conversation so far. And also, this is why the work that you do and the why the work that public benefits lawyers do is so important. But it’s also, it’s such a perfect example of how working directly with clients as you do, and as so many other legal aid lawyers do, that work feeds directly into, and should feed directly into, policy change, right? And that’s a big part of Community Legal Services’ model. It’s also a big part of how your work is set up. You represent clients, but you also work with federal policymakers, like the people at the Social Security Administration, like folks in Congress, to say, here’s what we’re seeing on the ground, and guess what? This is why this stuff is not working. This is why these policies, which might sound good when they’re coming up with them in a conference room, are actually inhumane and counterproductive and dehumanizing on the ground. And so, as we get into talking a little bit about you, I think the first kind of lightning round question I’m gonna ask is, is there anything you wanna share about what you’ve learned about the value that legal services lawyers can bring into the room when it comes to informing policy change?
BURDICK: Thank you for that question, Rebecca. And I think the value that we bring is the view from the ground, right? I can’t tell you how many rooms I’ve been in where I don’t have sophisticated policy analysis to offer. It is just clear that isn’t going work. Or as you were saying, like with overpayments, right, there’s this way to ask for them to be forgiven. But even though SSA did a great job recently revising this form to make it ten instead of 14 pages, being like, actually this form makes it really hard for people to access this relief, right? And just being involved in watching people try to grapple with these forms, these little processes really helps to, I think, show some of the sticking points that are harder to see for the policymakers about like, we can’t just think about what we want to have done kind of on a policy level. We need to think about how it’s gonna work on the ground. Or it’s not gonna work! Because, that’s I mean, that’s one of the big issues. It’s something that I see a lot.
For example, I was talking to a claimant who is working and getting SSI, who tries to use SSA’s app to report, which is great. It is great that they have an app. For a lot of people that is much easier than waiting in a local field office. But the app is super glitchy! [laughs] I don’t know what we need to do to make this app not glitchy. It also asks people to give their total monthly employment. But a lot of people today are piecing together a lot of tiny jobs, like maybe some gig work, maybe a part-time job. And asking them to do the math on their end is a lot, right? So, it just really talks about like, this was a good idea, but this app itself is not great. What can we do to get this good idea translated into something that is actually usable for the people who need to use it? And that’s what I think legal aid can offer. And that’s one of the reasons why, even as I do more and more policy work, it’s really important that I continue to work with claimants and take cases and just continue to really feel that out ‘cause it’s hard to see when you’re not in it or you’re only occasionally in it.
VALLAS: Yeah, and it’s one of the reasons that I feel like one of the most important roles I have played over the years in moving in think tank circles, moving in legislative and policy circles has been literally just to bridge and to say, “Actually, this list of invitees you have for this meeting is great, but you need some legal aid lawyers in this room! And here’s three examples of people you should invite.” And it’s almost always gonna include somebody from CLS. Sometimes it’s you or colleagues of yours. But I feel passionately that it always makes any policy conversation, any legislative reform conversation more connected to the experiences on the ground. And I wanna say that’s not a substitute for having people with direct lived experience in the room as well. But often, the perspectives can be complementary because it can be, “Here’s my experience. I’m the person going through this”, and that would be your client. And then there you are, as their advocate saying, “And here are the patterns I’ve seen across a whole bunch of the different clients I work with, and here’s how this is showing up for large numbers of people,” and then connect it to the people who are bringing the economic analysis or the labor market analysis or whatever the other pieces are that you’re gonna get from your Master’s in policy or whatever degree people have that has taught them about policy analysis. But I really appreciate you speaking directly to that, and that’s part of why I wanted to bring this in.
So, I’m gonna kind of continue to move us through a little bit of a lightning round asking you some questions about you, Jen, which I’m excited to hear the answers to ‘cause these are questions I haven’t gotten the chance to ask you before. The next one is, what is your personal mission statement, and how did you come to find it?
BURDICK: That’s a good question, and I’m glad you sent that in advance, ‘cause I think I kind of have two. One is, keep it moving. And I say that because I feel like in public benefits policy stuff, but even with some cases, it’s easy to get stuck. And I spend a lot of time telling myself and other people to keep it moving. Our cases aren’t perfect. Our clients don’t always have the perfect, complementary sets of disability. That doesn’t mean an argument can be made. You know, some of the policy asks we make are not gonna completely solve the problem. But I also mean, another one I have is that client-centered advocacy typically means compromise and incremental progress, which is something I’ve really embodied the last two years. I think it is very easy to miss the incremental win when something isn’t everything that you want. But in this space, incremental wins can mean huge things. A slight revision on a form can have a huge impact on lots of people filling out the form, right? And trying to really stay focused on looking for those possibilities and any incremental change we can make.
VALLAS: I love that. I love both of those answers. And I’ll just connect this conversation back to the one that I had with Kathleen Romig back in August. She’s a colleague of both of ours. She works at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities on a lot of these same issues, and she was talking at length about the importance of forms. And how nerdy that might sound or how unimportant that might sound, forms are usually the access point that people need to make it through to be able to access these types of benefits. And so, an example of incremental progress would be, as you’re saying, improving a form and making it more understandable and in plain English. And that might not be the broad, sweeping paradigm shift that we all also want to be working towards in longer-term ways. But in terms of the things you can actually do today that really make a difference for people, those kinds of incremental wins can be really, really important.
So, my next question is, and I realize you may challenge me on my premise, but if you are a superhero—and I believe that you are, and I believe that everyone I have on this podcast is, within the realm of law and policy—what are your superpowers?
BURDICK: [pauses] I’m a superhero. I think kind of on a similar theme, I think one of my superpowers is patience and determination and not losing sight of the big picture. Again, this has been, my career so far has been a marathon, not a sprint. And I think really understanding the wins where they happen and understanding that this is going to be a very, very long path towards economic liberation, which I hope we get to see, Rebecca [laughs], in our lives, I think that’s the value that I add, is trying to keep that, those feelings in the room.
VALLAS: And I feel that very much and know that about you, so I love you identifying those aspects of yourself. And I will validate all of them as definitely some of your superpowers.
What is your walk-up song or your hype song? This is something we’ve been asking everybody this season. And so, Kings Floyd, our fabulous producer, says she’s gonna make a playlist at some point of all the choices. So, what would you choose for yourself?
BURDICK: I am absolutely aging myself. My walk-up song for years has been Lose Yourself by Eminem. I had a…. I was an athlete in college, but not always a great one, so they were always racing me against other people. And so, that was the one that I would always wake up and try to get hyped up. And I still use it before testimony, before a hard hearing. It can really help me get into that, I need to just focus on what I’m doing space.
VALLAS: That’s amazing. And that’s gonna be such a great addition to this playlist, so I’m actually really excited for that answer. And now I’m gonna think of you when I hear Eminem. That’s amazing.
VALLAS: So, the last question on this list that I’m gonna ask you, as we have only just a few minutes left, is I know one that you had named might be a little bit hard for you to speak to. And I said to you, that’s okay, because this is hard for all of us. But it’s a question that I’ve committed to bringing into every single one of these conversations—even though I’m not doing a dedicated series anymore focusing on self-care as political warfare, which I had done earlier this year—and that is, how does self-care show up for you? How do you take care of yourself so that you can stay in this work for the long haul? And I’ll modify it given some of what we were saying before we started recording: What challenges do you face to self-care?
BURDICK: Self-care is a hard one. I do think it’s really important, but I know it’s hard for me ‘cause it’s hard for me to say no to things that I think are important even if I’m going to sacrifice my self-care. But to the extent, you know, what I try to do is I’ve always enjoyed working out. I try to really make that time for myself kind of sacred and give myself space each day to do it. If I am really being good, I also will give myself a TV show at the end of the day. I really like narrative TV as a winddown and a way to take myself away from everything else that I’ve been working on and thinking about and get to a more restful place. But I’m not that good at any more of it. I do, you know, I try to do therapy. I cancel it more often than I should when important things come up. Thankfully, I have a very, very nice therapist who seems to give me a lot of grace in that regard, as I’m like, “Another thing came up! I’m not doing it again.” But I think those are some of the things. And it’s something that I’m always working on, and I’m always thinking a lot about, like, to what extent is self-care that I’ve chosen for myself actually rejuvenating? I feel like there are a lot of messages about how I should be getting facials, and I don’t know, all sorts of stuff, which I don’t…I don’t know if that would be self-care to me. But I know that the things that I do find really helpful is like having space each day to work out ideally by myself and not with my kids interrupting, that’s like, [laughs] is really helpful, but it’s something I need to work on more.
VALLAS: It’s something we all need to work on more. It’s certainly why I keep bringing it into these conversations ‘cause I’m, it’s a real challenge for me. And I’ve gotten a lot better at it and a lot more conscious about it over the last several years because I sort of didn’t have a choice, and my body started to shut down, and I started to realize what it meant to, what the consequences were of completely abandoning myself to the work. So, I resonate with what you said, but also, I really appreciate your candor. And I feel it too, with all the kind of pop culture self-care messages from a whole self-care industry that has kind of cropped up. There’s all this oh, it’s take a bubble bath, get a facial. If that works for you, great, right? But there’s a lot else that is actually what a lot of people need. And honestly, the piece that you said about just saying no, right? That’s actually a huge form of self-care because that’s boundaries, and that’s one that’s, I know, hard for me as well. But it doesn’t always need to look like $50 face goop and a bubble bath, right? So, I appreciate so much your honest answer there.
Jen, we’re gonna run out of time, and there’s always more we could talk about. I feel like you could give us three or four hours, and we would sit together and still be nerding out about something to do with SSI. But I’m gonna need to bring this to a close and just say thank you so much for taking the time to do this. This was a really fun conversation for me, and just a big hug to everybody at CLS for me, please, ‘cause I miss everybody there in Philly. Jen Burdick is a supervising attorney in the SSI unit at Community Legal Services in Philly. You can learn more about CLS, my dear beloved legal aid alma mater, in show notes, and also more about some of the topics that we’ve been talking about today. Jen, thanks again and big hugs to you. [theme music returns]
BURDICK: Thanks, Rebecca. It’s such a fun conversation. I really appreciate it.
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the phenomenal Kings Floyd, who keeps us all in line week to week. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.