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Orange is the New Black Misses the Point on SSI

Here at Justice in Aging, our weekend Orange is the New Black binges sometimes become the subject of Monday morning water cooler conversations. The show can be spot-on in addressing a multitude of issues through the lens of a women’s prison, including the economic disparities that women face–especially women of color–that lead to increased incarceration; its sensitive treatment of transgender issues through the character, Sophia, played by Laverne Cox; and its unflinching look at what it’s like to be a poor, aging woman in America.

But sometimes the brilliant economy in writing that is a hallmark of the show short-changes some of the more real (and more interesting) truths in our society. Case in point, the first episode of the new season contains a scene referencing the little known Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program and implies that it is possible for people to use some timely chugging of Mountain Dew to defraud the program. This rare cameo for a program so integral to our work fighting senior poverty treats SSI as a joke, and fails to mention the program’s importance to the millions of low-income older adults and people with disabilities who rely on SSI for their most basic necessities.

The omission is ironic, considering that the episode had a Mother’s Day themed storyline meant to convey the wrenching pain of being a woman in prison away from one’s children and family. Especially since women like the women portrayed in Orange is the New Black are the very women who most rely on and benefit from SSI, and who are most at risk of growing old in poverty. Think about it. Women earn lower wages than men all their lives and are more likely to take time out of the workforce to care for families and thus earn lower social security benefits. Add to those risks the burden of being born into poverty, the disparities that women of color face in economic and employment matters, and the diminished opportunities afforded to the formerly incarcerated, and it’s easy to see that, to the real life women living all over America SSI is not a joke, but provides a crucial safety net.

Image courtesy of Dennis S Hurd via Flickr

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