The federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides monthly cash benefits to older adults, individuals who are blind, or people with disabilities and very low incomes and resources. States may supplement this income. SSI eligibility often allows older people to receive other important means-tested benefits such as Medicaid and food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly the Food Stamp Program. In 2017, about 8 million people received SSI benefits each month. Of that total, about 2 million were people age 65 or older.
SSI benefits do not go far enough to keep recipients out of poverty. The maximum annual federal SSI benefit in 2019 was only $9,252 for an individual and $13,884 for a couple. Although it is administered by the Social Security Administration, SSI is funded via general revenue and not through the Social Security trust funds.
Some SSI rules can create financial hardship for caregivers. For example, SSI benefits may be reduced by one-third if a beneficiary lives in another person’s household and does not pay for all of his or her food and shelter, which are considered in-kind support and maintenance.
Another threat to eligibility is the age threshold. Congress has considered legislation that would increase the age to qualify for SSI benefits from age 65 to 67 for those who qualify under the aged category. Although some individuals between the ages of 65 and 67 might qualify for SSI on the basis of disability, many would likely be left out.
Finally, the SSI program features a resource limit. If people with assets exceeding $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples are ineligible for benefits. These thresholds have not changed since 1989 and provide a disincentive for people to save money as they attempt to get out of poverty.
SUPPLEMENTAL SECURITY INCOME: Policy
The federal SSI benefit level should be increased to bring beneficiaries up to the poverty level, and states should supplement those payments.
The rule that reduces benefits by one-third for SSI recipients who live in someone else’s household and who do not pay for food or shelter should be eliminated in order to support informal caregiving arrangements.
Policymakers should not increase the age of eligibility for SSI.