Skip to main content

Smart Ass Cripple: How SSI Keeps People Poor

Current rules for SSI recipients make it difficult to get financial help from friends and family.

Relying on Social Security Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is no picnic—especially if it is one’s main and perhaps only source of economic support.

First of all, the maximum monthly SSI payment is $914 for an individual. But if two people who receive SSI get married, they get penalized. The highest allowable monthly payment for a married couple, when both are receiving SSI, is $1,371.

If a married couple wants to maintain SSI eligibility, they can’t have more than $3,000 in financial assets. The asset limit for an individual is $2,000.

And if all that isn’t petty and chintzy enough, people who get SSI can also be docked for having in-kind income. The Social Security Administration (SSA) says in-kind income is “food, shelter, or both that somebody else provides for you.”

So, for example, if someone who gets SSI also receives free or reduced room and/or board from someone trying to help them get by, SSA can reduce their monthly payment. According to SSA, of the 7.3 million people who received SSI in January 2022, about 793,000 of them were hit with an in-kind reduction from their monthly amount.

But in August of this year, SSA published a proposed rule change in the Federal Register to make the calculation it uses to determine in-kind housing reduction amounts less stringent. In February, SSA also published a separate proposed rule change that would completely eliminate the inclusion of food as an in-kind deduction. 

That’s good, but both of these changes are still just proposals. They’re not official yet. Proposed rule changes in the Federal Register are open for public comment for a period of time. The agency then reviews all comments and either reissues the rule as final, amends it, or withdraws it. The process does not move quickly.

The deadline for commenting on the latest proposal is October 23. Even if the rule eventually becomes final as it is currently written, it will still be only a partial improvement. People who get SSI could still be docked for their in-kind housing support, just for a lesser amount and not as frequently. And SSA acknowledges in the proposal that seeking this change was inspired by the fact that this lesser standard is already in effect in seven states where it has been mandated by court rulings.

How about getting rid of the whole idea of in-kind SSI deductions? When one person is trying to live off of no more than $914 a month, or a married couple is trying to live off of no more than $1,371, they need all of the help they can get. Receiving some support from someone else is not a luxury.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

In-kind deductions, and all of the other harsh restrictions that come along with receiving SSI, are rooted in the stupid old notion that people must be punished for being poor. Poor people deserve nothing more than the barest necessities. 

While the proposed changes are small steps in the right direction, major leaps are needed to truly help those who rely on SSI.

Mike Ervin: Disability rights activist and writer, “expressing pain through sarcasm since 2010.”

Since 1909, The Progressive has aimed to amplify voices of dissent and those under-represented in the mainstream, with a goal of championing grassroots progressive politics. Our bedrock values are nonviolence and freedom of speech.

Based in Madison, Wisconsin, we publish on national politics, culture, and events including U.S. foreign policy; we also focus on issues of particular importance to the heartland. Two flagship projects of The Progressive include Public School Shakedown, which covers efforts to resist the privatization of public education, and The Progressive Media Project, aiming to diversify our nation’s op-ed pages. We are a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.