SSI: the Most Misunderstood Government Program

By Tom Margenau

January 23, 2019 7 min read

This is going to be a column about that other program. What other program? Regular readers have heard me mention it occasionally. I'm talking about Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. When I do bring it up, I usually say something like this: "SSI is a federal welfare program that is managed by the Social Security Administration. It is NOT a Social Security benefit, and money to fund the program comes from the government's general revenues, not from the Social Security trust funds."

I feel obliged to make that point because almost everyone thinks SSI is a Social Security welfare benefit. Many others think that SSI stands for "Social Security Income." Again, it does not. It's something completely different.

Before going on, here is a quick history lesson. The SSI law was passed during the Nixon years — in 1973. His administration thought that instead of having 50 separate welfare programs administered by each state, with differing standards for eligibility, there should be one national welfare program with uniform eligibility criteria.

That probably made sense. But I think they made two mistakes. First, they called this new program Supplemental Security Income. That sounds an awful lot like it is some kind of supplemental Social Security benefit. And then they compounded that error by giving it to the Social Security Administration to run. No wonder people were confused then — and still are today!

So who gets SSI? If you are over 65 and poor, or if you are under 65 but disabled and poor, you might qualify for a monthly SSI check. How poor do you have to be? In a nutshell, you must have less than $2,000 in assets (the value of the home you live in and the car you drive don't count) and less than about $771 in monthly income.

In effect, SSI does what its name implies. It "supplements" your "income" up to that $771 level. So, for example, if a widow is getting $600 per month from Social Security and she has no other income, and if she has less than $2,000 in the bank, she would keep getting her $600 Social Security check and she would get $171 from SSI to take her up to the $771 level.

But it's not quite that simple. She would actually get $191 from SSI. And I am not even going to begin to try to explain why she would get the extra $20 per month. Suffice it to say that like any welfare program, there are enough eligibility criteria and payment variables to fill about 10 three-ring binders. (At least that was true when I worked for the agency. Today, it's all online, of course.) Readers often complain to me that Social Security rules are too complex. Well, believe me, SSI regulations make the Social Security rulebook look like an elementary school primer!

I don't get many emails from SSI recipients. But I've saved up a few and will go over them today.

Q: I am trying to help my adult son get on SSI. He has many mental problems and can't work. He lives with me, and I used to give him money to live and to pay his bills. The SSI people told me that money I gave him disqualified him for SSI. So instead of giving him money, I started paying his bills directly. And now they tell me my son still can't get SSI. Can you explain this to me?

A: As I pointed out at the beginning of this column, SSI is welfare. And like all welfare programs, any income a person has, whether it is paid directly, or in the indirect method you are now employing, counts against his possible SSI payment. Also, that $771 payment level is reduced significantly if someone is living in another person's household and not paying any rent. (The law assumes someone living like that doesn't need as much money as someone who is paying rent or a mortgage.)

You need to sit down with an SSI counselor at your local Social Security office and go over your financial situations and find out if there is some way your son could qualify for SSI.

Q: My mother lives on a very small widow's benefit. It's only $710 per month. We are trying to get her on SSI. She owns the small home that she lives in. The Social Security office turned her down for SSI because they said she has "excess resources." That's a joke! She does own a rundown cabin by a lake in the northern part of our state. But it's uninhabitable and she hasn't been there in years. Can you explain this to me?

A: The problem is that cabin, and especially the land it sits on, is worth money. I don't know how much, but I am sure it is more than $2,000. And that puts her over the asset limit to qualify for SSI. But you should go back to the Social Security office and ask an SSI specialist if there is some way she can dispose of that cabin and land and make herself eligible for SSI payments.

Q: I am trying to get Medicaid help for my elderly sister. Her husband deserted her years ago. She has hardly any money, and her health recently took a turn for the worse. When we called the welfare office about getting Medicaid help, we were told she has to apply for SSI at the Social Security office! We don't want any SSI. We just want some extra help paying her medical bills. What can we do about this?

A: You are probably going to have to take your sister to a Social Security office and sign her up for SSI. Here's why. Medicaid is a federal health insurance program for poor people. It is usually administered by state social service agencies (what you called the "welfare office"). But in most states, Medicaid eligibility is tied to SSI eligibility. In other words, if you qualify for SSI, you also qualify for Medicaid. So states like to let the federal government (via the Social Security Administration) do all the legwork and paperwork for them by getting their potential Medicaid clients on SSI first. If your mother is turned down for SSI, then go back to the welfare office to see if she can get Medicaid even if she can't get SSI.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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