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Benefits Change Would Hit Rural Montanans with Disabilities Hardest

Most rural Americans with disabilities lack a nearby Social Security Administration office. (Minerva Studio/Adobe Stock)
Most rural Americans with disabilities lack a nearby Social Security Administration office. (Minerva Studio/Adobe Stock)
February 10, 2020

HELENA, Mont. -- Rural people living with disabilities could feel the biggest impact from changes to the Social Security disability program.

The Trump administration wants to review the disability benefits for about 1 million people more often, according to the Social Security Administration. This could mean every two years instead of every three years.

Catherine Ipsen, associate director of the Rural Institute for Inclusive Communities at the University of Montana, says anyone who wants to appeal if benefits are terminated has to visit a Social Security office. In the case of a northeastern Montana community such as Scobey, for instance, that means driving 350 miles to Billings.

"Just traveling to the office -- that's 10 hours round trip of gas, that's one night of lodging, that's finding someone to potentially drive you," Ipsen points out. "There's a lot of hardship in that regard."

Montana has seven Social Security offices, with Billings the easternmost location. Ipsen adds that benefits cases can eventually go before disability administrative judges, who are only in Billings.

The Trump administration says the additional reviews will allow officials to manage the program more efficiently.

According to the Rural Institute, nearly twice as many rural Americans live in counties without a Social Security office as those who do.

Ipsen also notes the rural economy is harder on folks than the urban economy, in general. She says fewer rural residents with disabilities have jobs than did before the Great Recession in 2008, and there can be other challenges to employment.

"For instance, if you have a pretty significant physical disability and the jobs are manufacturing or extraction or those kinds of things, that really narrows your opportunities of what you can do and how you can accommodate, or overcome a loss of that income," she states.

Ipsen says one in four people with disabilities lives in poverty. Currently, nearly 8.4 million people nationwide receive Social Security disability benefits.

The Trump administration wants to conduct an additional 2.6 million reviews over the next decade.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - MT