The Trap of Supplemental Security Income – NYTimes.com
He is one of more than 8.7 million disabled Americans who rely on cash assistance from the government through a program called Supplemental Security Income. The program was created in 1974 to help blind, aged and disabled people meet basic needs for food, clothing and shelter. By 2035, the federal government expects to spend $60.9 billion in payments to 9.9 million people.
Discussion of Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security programs has been at the forefront of election-year debate. But there has been no discussion of S.S.I. The fact is that expenditures for the S.S.I. program are rising while the economic status of disabled people is on the decline.
The very program that is supposed to be their safety net is actually the source of the problem, experts say. S.S.I. traps many disabled people by limiting their income to levels just above the poverty line, and taking away their cash benefits if they achieve any level of security.
At 16, Mr. Crelia was given a diagnosis of porphyria, an incurable hereditary blood disorder. His symptoms — seizures, paralysis, blackouts, nausea and extreme pain — became more and more severe, preventing him from finishing college and landing him in the hospital for days or weeks at a time. In addition, in 2009, he learned he had H.I.V. That has not affected his ability to work. But his porphyria has made maintaining a traditional full-time job nearly impossible.
So he and others like him need a flexible financial safety net for the periods during which they cannot work. But no such program exists. The only way for Mr. Crelia to qualify for cash assistance was to sign up for S.S.I. — and demonstrate that he was unable to “engage in substantial gainful activity” because of his physical impairment.
He now receives a monthly check for $506 through the S.S.I. program, and he is allowed to earn $85 more. (He also receives some assistance toward his rent and food expenses.) Once he surpasses the $85, his benefit check will be reduced by $1 for every $2 he earns. And if his income reaches $1,097 a month, he will no longer be eligible for any cash S.S.I. benefits at all. So he must be poor or he must give up all government support. Mr. Crelia is never permitted to have more than $2,000 in the bank, a restriction that places the trappings of a middle-class life — a car, a modest home, a family — far out of reach.