A proposed change in how the Social Security Administration (SSA) determines Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits could boost monthly payments for hundreds of thousands of economically vulnerable older adults and people with disabilities.
Advocates for reforming SSI, which aids low-income people who are 65 and older, blind or have a disability, say the change could also significantly reduce bureaucratic burdens for both beneficiaries and SSA staff.
The new rule would amend Social Security’s treatment of in-kind support and maintenance, or ISM. As currently defined, ISM is food or shelter costs fully or partially covered for you by someone other than a spouse you live with. The SSA considers this a form of income, and income is a key factor in determining eligibility and payment levels for SSI.
Those rules have been in place since Congress established the SSI program in 1972 and placed it under Social Security’s purview. But the SSA now proposes omitting food from the in-kind calculation and, by extension, from its definition of income.
That could mean bigger payments for some of the nearly 800,000 people whose SSI benefits are reduced by as much as a third because they get help from friends or relatives to pay for basic needs. It would also simplify a particularly onerous element of SSI administration that requires Social Security workers to spend time and resources delving into millions of current and potential beneficiaries’ living arrangements.
“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.”
A detailed summary of the rule change was published in the Federal Register Feb. 15, and the public can comment on the proposal until April 17. After that, the SSA will evaluate the comments and, if it decides to move forward with the change, publish a final rule that sets a date for implementation.
Income reduces benefits
SSI aims to provide a baseline level of financial support to people with very low incomes and few assets who are older or have a disability. In 2023, the maximum federal SSI payment is $914 a month for an individual — about 25 percent below the federal poverty line — and $1,371 for a married couple in which both spouses are eligible for the program.