As the COVID pandemic continues to create unprecedented turmoil, those of us who advocate for economically disadvantaged American families are once again raising our voices to call for raising the asset caps for public assistance programs. To qualify for many assistance programs an individual cannot have more than a certain amount of money, the idea being that if someone has enough money, then they don’t need financial assistance from the government. While there need to be asset limits, the definition of “enough” is outdated, and I and many others believe these caps have been harmful especially for our fellow citizens who are disabled and whose economic situation has been declining since the 1970s.
Social Security’s SSI (Supplemental Security Income) program is a prime example. SSI is a program that provides very modest financial assistance. In 2021, the maximum federal benefit for individual will be $794 a month. It was developed as a safety net for those who have little or no income and are unable to work due to a disabling injury or illness. SSI has severe resource limits for benefit claimants—$2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a married couple in countable resources. Countable resources include income, cash, land, retirement accounts, life insurance plans and even burial funds, as well as anything else of value that could be used for food or housing if converted to cash. Some items are exempt, and are not counted toward the SSI resource limit even though they might be valuable. For example, a house a person owns and lives in, and one car, will not usually be considered as countable resources under the rules governing SSI payments. However, a home one owns but is not living in is a countable resource, which will almost always make the owner ineligible for SSI benefits.
The intention of these limits is allegedly to make certain that only the neediest people receive SSI benefits. In reality, however, it forces disabled people to exhaust their resources or risk that their benefits will be slashed. As a result, a SSI recipient’s financial future is always hanging by a thread. In the event of a setback (like the current pandemic) they will not have any real savings or other assets to fall back on, leaving them in danger of homelessness and food insecurity.
I have seen disabled Americans fight to win their claims only to have their benefits kept from them because they co-signed the lease for a car with a relative with bad credit, manage a bank account for an elderly or sick parent, or because they had a life insurance policy that was worth “too much” money to receive SSI. Even if you never drive that car you co-signed for and that relative wouldn’t allow you to sell their car, that car is still an asset to an SSI applicant. Likewise, you’d never spend your ailing parent’s savings on yourself when you’ve only been listed on their bank account “just in case.” But, these things happen to real people applying for benefits; they’ve been told they’ve won their case and then they are denied the benefit they need desperately because they had what Social Security considered a financial asset – even if they never intended on using it.
A recent client of mine was filing for benefits and her SSI application was denied because she was told that she first had to sell her mother’s wedding ring. That ring was too valuable for Social Security’s antiquated standards. She would remain ineligible for SSI until she pawned that ring and spent the cash on rent – given how low the asset cap is this is what some people have to do in order to prove that they are needy enough for SSI.
The time has come to update the SSI resource limit which has been in place since 1972! It has not even been updated to account for inflation.
In September 2019, Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced a bill which would increase the limit on countable resources for SSI recipients to $10,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a married couple. Additionally, the bill would remove certain other penalties like when relatives help out with food or housing. The bill would also establish inflation indexing to allow for annual cost-of-living adjustments for resource limits. Rep. Grijalva’s bill, H.R. 4280, is supported by 45 co-sponsors. The bill was referred to the House Committee on Ways and Means where it remains stalled as of this writing.
The time has come for us to make certain that all people, including those with disabilities, are allowed to hold in reserve necessary resources to weather the inevitable financial storms. Contact your congressperson at https://www.usa.gov/elected-officials and tell them that the SSI asset limit should be raised.