I was talking about a future story with an editor and this column came to mind—you know a subject has affected you when you remember the name of somebody from a story after 20 years. I certainly remember Riva Feldsher.
When Riva Feldsher got a letter from the government telling her that the $484 monthly check she lives on would stop coming in 90 days, she wasn't upset.
The letter was written in English. Feldsher, a Russian immigrant, can't read English.
Had the letter been written in Russian it wouldn't have made a difference because Feldsher, 83, is nearly blind after a stroke several years ago.
Once the news was explained to her, Feldsher reacted with resignation.
"What am I going to do?" she said through an interpreter. "I am an old person. The only choice I have is to go on the street and die there."
Feldsher is one of about 22,000 elderly or disabled Illinois immigrants — 10,500 over age 75 — facing a similar prospect over the next several months, as government subsidies are taken away from them in the name of welfare reform.
"It is going to be devastating," said Barbara Otto, executive director of the SSI Coalition for a Responsible Safety Net. "People count on this monthly cash assistance to pay for housing, clothing, food."
Karen Popowski, executive director of the Polish American Association, called the cuts "a national tragedy in the making."
"It seems unreasonable and inhumane to achieve cost savings by denying subsistence benefits to elderly and disabled legal immigrants," she said.
Two federal programs are affected by the cuts — Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, and food stamps. Last August, President Clinton signed the welfare bill, and it will go into effect between April 1 and the end of August.
Chicago's Latino Institute estimated that the state will lose $130 million a year in federal aid.
"Even if private agencies and religious-based providers fill the gap, there is no way they can replace $105 million in lost benefit in Illinois," Otto said. "Absolutely no way."
The Latino Institute and the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago hired the Urban Institute of Washington, D.C., to study the taxes paid in Illinois by immigrants vs. the benefits they received.
"We found that Illinois immigrants pay $3 million more in taxes than they collect in benefits," said Pamela Seubert, director of government programs for the Jewish Federation. "So ironically, while people talk about immigrants being a burden to society, their tax contributions leave money on the table for the rest of us."
To escape the cuts, immigrants have several options. They can prove they have been employed for a total of 10 years while in the United States; that they are veterans or on active duty in the military, or that they have become U.S. citizens.
None of these options is available to Feldsher, who came to this country in 1991 from Kiev. Her husband and her only son had died, and her younger sister in Chicago was all the family she had left.
Feldsher expected, she said, to enjoy a small stipend similar to the one the Soviet government paid in consideration for the years she worked as a bookkeeper.
Asked if she could learn English and pass the citizenship test, Feldsher hurried to bring out her Stalin-era medals to show she was a hard worker who helped win the war against the Germans.
"She is worried the government thinks she is a thief or a bad person," said Jane Tannenbaum, a social worker assigned to Feldsher. "She does not understand how the government can take away her 'pension' — she thinks of it as a pension. She takes it very personally."
Asked whether Feldsher could pass the test, Tannenbaum said: "She thinks the television is talking to her. Sometimes she talks back. Since she had a stroke, she is nearly blind and faints."
"I can't pass it," Feldsher said. "I can remember everything going on in my childhood. But not much else."
Even sharp-minded immigrants who want to become citizens might find themselves in a Catch-22, losing benefits at least for a few months, because of delays in the system.
"A legal immigrant to the United States cannot even file their application for naturalization until they have been a resident in the U.S. for four years and nine months," Seubert said. "The minimum amount of time it takes to process an application is six months."
But the wait to become a citizen is expected to be even longer.
"The INS has now elongated the FBI fingerprint checks— which are required by statute — and the INS expects 1.8 million applications this year, as opposed to 1.2 million last year, without additional resources. So we expect to elongate the minimum to nine months and probably in excess of a year," Seubert said.
Rob Koon, a spokesman for the Immigration and Naturalization Service in Washington, confirmed Seubert's figures, but added that the increase in applications for naturalization cannot be attributed to welfare reform.
"We've been seeing an upswing in naturalization applications since fiscal 1992," he said.
Advocates for immigrants and the elderly find it a cruel irony that welfare reform should be balanced on the backs of powerless immigrants.
"The purpose of welfare reform was to move people to the workplace (who) should be working, but 40 percent of the cuts (under welfare reform) are in SSI, a program that supports elderly and disabled," Otto said. "The public does not understand where these cuts took place, I believe. The general public did not intend for us to rip away the safety net from people who will not transfer to work or cannot naturalize because of the disabling process of aging."
Federal officials hope that changes can be made before the new law transforms into widespread human hardship.
"The president, when he signed the welfare bill, mentioned this as the part he was trying to fix," said Hannah Rosenthal, regional director of the federal Health and Human Services Department. "He has proposed that elderly legal immigrants should be allowed to get their SSI. He is pushing that, but Congress is being difficult."
Rosenthal said the president's proposal has "a chance of working," which does not translate into much hope for the elderly immigrants of Illinois.
"Now that they understand this means they will be losing their money, their anxiety rate is even higher," said Donna Pazutto of the Council for Jewish Elderly.
For Riva Feldsher, the anxiety is expressed in hoarding what little income she has.
"She has started spending just $1 a day because she thinks she will be out on the street and need money for food," said Tannenbaum.
What she is worried about losing is a $250-a-month studio apartment, decorated with a huge photo of her deceased husband, a photo of her sister, and three identical pictures of a grinning little boy, cut from cereal boxes, carefully propped up at each place at her tiny kitchen table.
They keep her company, her social worker explained.
—Originally published in the Sun-Times March 27, 1997
To find out what happened next to Riva Feldsher, click here. for the follow-up.