Among the tens of thousands of New Yorkers who joined in a massive rally to protest Gov. Paterson’s proposed austerity budget at City Hall last week was Vince Tooker, 57, who lives in a transitional shelter in Manhattan.

Tooker, who suffers from heart problems, is in the process of applying for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a government subsidy for the low-income disabled and elderly. “I’m hoping there will be enough money left for me,” he said, shaking his head among the throngs of teachers, students, union members and advocates of all stripes who filled downtown on March 5.

Even before Paterson released his executive budget in December, SSI advocates had complained that the state’s paltry SSI contribution left New York’s 660,704 elderly and disabled recipients languishing below poverty level. If the proposed cuts are implemented, the typical SSI recipient will be left at 81.6 percent of federal poverty level, down from the current 83.5 percent.

“We were shocked,” said Jim Collins, a board member of New York Citizens’ Committee on Aging who co-chairs the SSI Coalition of New York. “It was cutting a hole in the safety net [the governor] had pledged to maintain.”

The SSI cut would save the state $84 million and leave most SSI recipients to survive on $737 a month. Unlike the state’s contribution, the federal government’s contribution increases with cost of living adjustments – but if the state cut is implemented, it will practically cancel out this year’s federal increase.

The low-income elderly and disabled are not the only ones who stand to lose from the governor’s proposals. The budget, which seeks to close a $13.7 billion shortfall in 2009-2010, would include a $698 million reduction in school aid and a slowdown in health care spending that would save the state $3.5 billion.

The rally to protest the cuts was organized by One New York – a coalition of more than 200 unions, community groups and service agencies – and drew a crowd of 75,000, according to SEIU, one of the main participants. (Asked for its estimate, the NYPD would not comment on the crowd’s size.)

Thousands of protestors waved placards calling for “fair share reform,” meaning a tax hike for state residents with incomes over $250,000. From the podium, speaker after speaker – from teachers’ union chief Randi Weingarten to City Council Speaker Christine Quinn – called for the wealthy to pay more.
“The state has various means at its disposal,” commented Collins. “We’re hoping the governor will use the [federal] stimulus package or a tax increase” to avoid the deep cuts.

After years of frustration with slim SSI funding, advocates formed the SSI Coalition last year to pressure the state to increase its contribution. When Paterson released his budget, the group changed its focus to resisting the cuts.

“Many of us work on so many issues that we’ve been playing more defense than offense,” said Harvey Rosenthal, executive director of the New York Association of Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services. He wants advocates to return to a proactive SSI campaign when the fiscal crisis eases.

In recent weeks, SSI advocates have joined teachers, healthcare workers, service providers and others in lobbying Albany against the cuts. Many legislators are feeling the pressure.

State Senator Ruben Diaz, Sr., who is chair of the Aging Committee and represents a high-poverty Bronx district, is one representative who is working to stave off the loss of benefits. “Everyone says ‘don’t cut, don’t cut,’ so the question is where to get the money,” Diaz said. He has signed on to the “Fair Share Tax Reform Bill” (S2021) to increase taxes on wealthier New Yorkers, and is also supporting greater taxes on credit card companies.

“Don’t cut” was the motto among Thursday’s crowds, which swelled against police barricades and filled Broadway from City Hall Park to north of Worth Street. Those concerned about SSI were joined by thousands of union members, community residents and advocates.

“I’m worried about losing my job,” said Verencia Monroe, 38, a certified nurse assistant at the Kingsbridge Nursing Home in the Bronx, who stood with healthcare workers from across the city to oppose closings and layoffs. “We don’t yet know all the hospitals that will be affected.”

“We’re most concerned about the children,” said Nadine Reis, a teacher from PS1 who attended with her coworkers. “What will happen to a kid who’s already not thriving when he’s moved from a classroom of 25 to a classroom of 40?”
Sabrina Ramouk, a sophomore at BMCC, attended to oppose the $600 annual tuition hike proposed for CUNY students. “We’re the poorest students in the city. It’s unfair we have to pay for this,” Ramouk said.

For SSI recipients, most of whom are unable to work, the prospect of even a $24 drop in monthly income is unthinkable.

Parvati Devi, 62, says she spends 61 percent of her SSI income on rent for her Upper West Side apartment. If the cut is implemented, she will have to think more carefully about buying even necessities like toothpaste. “Cable television is my only luxury now,” Devi said.

She’s made a career out of volunteer advocacy – she fought for enactment of the Disability Rent Increase Exemption in 2005 and remains a member of Goddard Riverside Community Center – and is determined to continue her involvement.

“A lot of disabled people are pessimistic,” she sighed. “But I don’t let that stop me.”

Indeed, in defiance of the sour economic climate, Thursday’s crowd remained spirited – at times even jubilant – breaking into chants and waving placards as dusk began to settle across lower Manhattan.

“I’m cautiously hopeful,” said Rosenthal, from the psychiatric association. “The threat of the [SSI] cuts has brought together different groups, people who work for seniors, a variety of disability groups –and that’s a positive thing.”

And what did the governor make of the sea of humanity gathered to register dismay about the proposed budget? One spokesman reached Friday was hardly aware of the protest – held along with simultaneous rallies in cities across the state. “The state faces a record deficit of over $14 billion,” was the response from spokesman Jeffrey Gordon. “Gov. Paterson proposed a range of initiatives to reduce costs and will be working with the legislature to develop a balanced budget that meets the critical needs of all New Yorkers during these challenging times.”

– Chloe Tribich