Biden Administration Proposes Big Change To Benefits For People With Disabilities

Supplemental Security Income recipients could receive meals or groceries without the government cutting their benefits.

WASHINGTON — A new proposal from the Social Security Administration would make life easier for millions of disabled Americans whose friends or family help them out with food.

The proposal, set to be published Wednesday in the Federal Register, would make it so the government no longer cuts monthly benefits for people who get regular help with meals or groceries.

More than 7 million Americans with disabilities receive monthly payments from the Supplemental Security Income program, which has strict eligibility requirements that Congress hasn’t adjusted for decades.

Beneficiaries give the government permission to monitor their bank accounts, and an application form on the Social Security Administration’s website asks if the applicant buys all their own food separately from household members or if somebody from outside the house helps them.

The form says applicants “must report to Social Security” if the amount of help they receive from others “goes up or down,” and that they have to notify the government if someone starts helping them with expenses.

The maximum SSI benefit is $914, but it can drop by a third, or $304, if someone else pays for a beneficiary’s food or rent. Roughly 10% of recipients faced a food or shelter reduction in January 2022, according to the Social Security Administration.

Under the proposed rule, rent help could still cause a benefit reduction, but food help wouldn’t.

“We expect that these changes will simplify our rules, making them less cumbersome to administer and easier for the public to understand and follow,” the Social Security Administration said in its proposal.

The proposed change likely reflects the priorities of President Joe Biden — under his Republican predecessor, the Social Security Administration pursued cuts to disability benefits.

The change won’t take effect immediately; by law, the Social Security Administration has to wait for the public to comment and then respond to the feedback.

The current rule discourages friends and family members from helping people with severe disabilities, said Jennifer Burdick, a legal aid lawyer with Community Legal Services of Philadelphia.

“It’s administratively unwieldy and honestly mean-spirited to ask SSI recipients to report every free meal they receive and then cut their benefits in response,” Burdick said.

David Goldfarb, director of policy for The Arc, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities, said he hoped the Social Security Administration would consider simplifying the rest of its “in-kind support and maintenance” calculation.

“For example, if someone is sleeping on a friend’s couch or floor, which has no market value in terms of rent, I don’t think that should be included in these calculations either,” Goldfarb said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has described SSI as a “forgotten” program since Congress has let it run on autopilot for years. Brown led a bipartisan effort to update the program’s rules against accumulating savings in a bank account last year, but party leaders kept the change out of an end-of-year government funding bill.

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