This is going to be a column about Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. In other words, it will NOT be a column about Social Security. Supplemental Security Income and Social Security are two entirely different government programs. They really have nothing to do with each other, other than the fact that they are both managed by the Social Security Administration.
I’m emphasizing the difference between the two programs because millions of people think SSI stands for Social Security Income. Every single day, I get emails from people who tell me they are getting SSI, when they really mean to say they are getting Social Security. So if you are one of those people, then please remember you are getting Social Security, not SSI.
But the reason I’m writing this column today is because of an email I got from someone whose son really is getting SSI. Here it is.
Q: My son, who is now 42, has been disabled since birth and is getting SSI. He started getting SSI when he was 18. I will be turning 62 and plan to file for my Social Security. I’ve been told my son might lose his SSI when I go on Social Security. Can you explain that? And by the way, in a past column, you referred to SSI as a welfare program. I beg to differ. I would never have filed for any kind of welfare benefits for my son. He is getting a supplemental Social Security check.
A: I will explain what will happen with your son’s SSI checks when you go on Social Security in a bit. But first, let me straighten out the benefits your son is currently getting.
I’m sure you’ve heard the phrase: “If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck—it’s a duck.” Well, if a government program looks like a welfare program, runs like a welfare program, and has rules like a welfare program—it’s a welfare program. And believe me, SSI is a welfare program. To explain this further, let me give a quick history lesson.
For most of its history, our country didn’t have a national welfare system. Even though there was federal money involved, welfare programs were administered by states and sometimes even by cities and counties. And there were wildly different eligibility rules from one place to another. Someone might qualify for welfare benefits in one jurisdiction but someone down the road in the next county in even poorer circumstances couldn’t get benefits.
And there were all kinds of stories of these local welfare offices being run like little fiefdoms. In other words, if you knew the right person, or maybe if you were the right religion, or had the right color skin, or if you didn’t speak English with an accent, you were much more likely to qualify for a little help from the system.
Enter Richard Nixon, or more precisely, some higher-ups in the Nixon administration. In the early 1970s, they realized that something needed to be done about our nation’s welfare mess. Their solution was to standardize and federalize the system. They set up one national welfare program with one set of rules that would apply to everyone in the country. They called the program Supplemental Security Income and they gave it to the Social Security Administration to run because that agency had the right infrastructure and the right kind of experience to manage a federal benefits program. (And let me quickly add here that SSI is funded entirely by general government revenues, not by Social Security taxes.)
And I remember the very early days within the SSA when we took on the SSI program. And in those early days, some overly conscientious executives within the organization decided to not tell people that SSI was a welfare program. It was drummed into us that we were not to refer to SSI as welfare because that word has negative connotations. We were to tell people it was a “needs-based” program.
Personally, I never liked that directive. I thought we were just not being honest with the people who were filing for SSI benefits. I quickly discovered that many people had no idea what a “needs based” program is. But they all knew what welfare is. And once they understood they were getting welfare, they better understood the rules that went along with it.
For example, you can only get SSI if your income and assets are below certain limits. (Currently, you won’t qualify for SSI if you have more than about $800 per month in income and more than $2,000 in liquid assets.)
So anyway, SSI is a welfare program. You must be either over 65 and poor or under 65, disabled, and poor to get benefits. Your son probably could not get SSI when he was young because your income would have prevented him from qualifying. But once he turned 18, your income no longer counted against him and that’s why he now gets SSI.
But like all other welfare programs, the rules require that your son file for any other benefits he might be due. So once you file for your Social Security retirement, your son is going to be eligible for what are known as “disabled adult child” benefits on your record. He will be due an amount equal to 50 percent of your full retirement rate, even though you will be getting reduced age 62 benefits.
So let’s say your FRA benefit is $2,800 per month. That means your son will start getting $1,400 monthly in DAC benefits. And once those checks start rolling in, his SSI benefit, which I’m guessing is around $800 per month, is going to stop.
Or to help you understand that better, he’s getting $800 per month now in SSI benefits because he has no other income. But once he starts having $1,400 per month in income, there is no longer any need for the taxpayers to be supporting him with that $800 per month SSI (i.e., welfare) check.
One final note: Your son probably gets free Medicaid coverage along with those SSI checks. There is a pretty good chance his Medicaid coverage will continue even after his SSI checks stop. Talk to your local SSI caseworker about this.
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org