About half of the elderly Americans who are so poor that that they are eligible for a special monthly payment under the social security program haven't even applied. Why? Mostly because these Americans - more than a million of them - don't even know the program exists, says Ronald Pollack, executive director of the Villers Foundation, an advocacy organization for the elderly poor. Further, he says, no one in government bothers to tell them about it.

Congress set up the program 17 years ago. The benefit guarantees the elderly and disabled poor a minimum income of $85 a week if they live alone, or $128 for a couple.

More than 6,000 elderly Americans in 15 states were interviewed for a new study funded by the Villers Foundation to find out whether the elderly knew about the program, part of the federal welfare safety net.

Sixty percent of the elderly poor people questioned in the Villers study said they had never been told about the program, called supplemental security income or SSI.

The study also interviewed managers of 31 offices of the Social Security Administration, which administers the program. In one third of these offices no staff members were assigned to go into the community and inform the elderly about the program, Mr. Pollack says.

And many of the elderly who did know about the program turned out to have a fundamental misunderstanding of it. For example, many incorrectly believed that they would be ineligible because they owned a house or a car.

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