Will food be excluded from SSI benefits?
More than 7 Million Americans are supported by Social Security Income (SSI) benefits each month. SSI provides a baseline level of financial support for those over 65 years of age or those living with a disability. Monthly payments can be reduced or even removed if you receive income from work or other sources, including in-kind support and maintenance (ISM).
If a beneficiary lives with others and pays less than a proportional share of food and shelter costs — for example, one-fourth in a four-person household — or receives help paying these bills from someone outside their household, the ISM rules then come into play. But soon individuals receiving SSI with disabilities could see big changes to the way their monthly payments are determined.
Some of these SSI rules have been in place since Congress established the program in 1972 and placed it under Social Security’s purview. Currently defined, ISM is food or shelter costs fully or partially covered for you by someone other than a spouse you live with. The Social Security Administration SSA) considers this a form of income, and income is a key factor in determining eligibility and payment levels for SSI.
However, the Federal Register recently proposed a rule where the SSA wants to modify its regulations to exclude food from the way “in-kind support and maintenance (ISM)” is calculated. You can see the full summary of the Federal Register proposed rule here.
The SSA says that “not everything an individual receives is considered to be income for SSI purposes. Generally, if the item received cannot be used as, or to obtain, food or shelter, it will not be considered as income.” Furthermore, the agency also proposes to rework the definition of income to allow this exception.
What This Disability Change Could Mean
Food assistance helps people meet their basic needs, which is why receipts of food have traditionally been included in SSI. The complexities of the current food policies may actually outweigh their utility, according to the Social Security Administration, who wrote this in its proposal. “Moreover, the current (in-kind support and maintenance) policy may insert barriers into what would otherwise be an innocuous receipt of a meal or food from an individual’s friends or family. The current requirements for reporting in-kind food receipts could discourage SSI applicants and recipients from receiving an often informal but important form of help.”
In other words, this change could also point to bigger payments for some of people whose SSI benefits are reduced by as much as a third because they get support from friends or relatives to pay for their basic needs. “When you consider that the [SSI] benefit itself is below the poverty level, applying a one-third reduction on it because of ISM is a hardship for the beneficiaries,” says Jack Smalligan, a senior policy fellow at the Urban Institute’s Income and Benefits Policy Center. “And it’s also very expensive for SSA to administer this.”
The change would also simplify the burdensome element of SSI administration requiring Social Security workers to spend time and resources delving into millions of current and potential beneficiaries’ living arrangements. Cheryl Bates-Harris, a senior disability advocacy specialist at the National Disability Rights Network, says “there’s more important work to be done, I believe, at the Social Security Administration than determining whether or not food somebody received from someone is [in-kind support]. It just doesn’t make sense.”
Are Shelter Assistance Changes Included?
The plan does not incorporate any changes to the way that SSI treats assistance with shelter. This means that beneficiaries could continue to see their payments reduced if they do not contribute to rent, mortgage or utility costs for the place where they live.
Regardless of whether or not the proposal is adopted, the Social Security Administration still intends to question beneficiaries if they buy food separately from others in their household, eat all meals out, and/or if they receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.
Significant First Step
It’s easy to see how important this proposal is as a first step to changing the food rules within SSI benefits. “There is a lot more to be done, but it’s a meaningful difference. Food is a fundamental aspect of life, so it’s significant,” Smalligan says. “I certainly wouldn’t want us to stop here. I think it would be a disappointment if this is all they did.”
AARP reports that as of January 2022, the Social Security Administration said that it reduced the benefits of 793,000 recipients because they received help with food or shelter. 2023 numbers are due in soon for comparison.
Back in 2005, the administration eliminated help paying for clothing as an ISM category. Subsequently, disability advocates patiently await the welcomed effort for food exclusions to update SSI regulations.
This proposed rule change is up for public comment through April 17. The SSA will evaluate all comments before any finalization are determined, and then publish a final rule, setting a date for implementation. The proposal could expand financial security and lessen food insecurity for beneficiaries by eliminating one source of potential payment reductions and removing a “possible disincentive for family and friends to help applicants or recipients obtain food,” admits Social Security.
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