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Food on the chopping block?

Sit down before reading this as you are going to be shocked. Rules for keeping governmental benefits could get easier. Yes, easier.

Families with special-needs members are used to navigating complex systems – after all we’ve spent years working on IEPs in school, applying for benefits and filling out either quarterly or annual statements to keep those benefits. That doesn’t mean we like those complex systems and we might be getting some relief.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) pays $914 for individuals in 2023 (some states add to this amount). To get the full benefit, an individual cannot have more than $2,000 of countable resources, cannot have income over certain limits and cannot receive in-kind support and maintenance (ISM). The first part of that is pretty easy to know, report and plan for. The second, earned income, is a mess to understand. The third drives people over the edge.

Families I work with and speak to often charge room and board (rent and food in today’s language) for their loved ones living at home. By doing so, they maximize the SSI benefit. If they do not, then the benefit is reduced by roughly one-third. The Social Security Administration considers providing a room and food as “in-kind income.” It sort of makes sense – without free rent and food a person would need to work to cover those costs.

The problem is the accounting that is required.

Ideally, rent is handled through an annual lease contract. The contract shows the Social Security Administration that some of the SSI payment get spent for housing related expenses. By charging rent, that part of the equation no longer counts towards ISM and so there is no reduction of the monthly payment for providing shelter.

Food is more complicated, especially the accounting. If you head to the grocery store and pick up $100 of items how do you decide who pays for what? One option is to split the grocery bill by the number of household residents and then assign that share of the cost to your loved one receiving SSI. That sounds fun, doesn’t it? That’s one strategy. Another is to buy items on two tickets so you have a receipt in the file for any accounting that might be required to maintain benefits. Almost as much fun. And then what happens if you take your family member out to dinner and pay for it? Will you want to keep receipts for every payment for the family? Over a year, that could be a massive amount of paper to keep on file.

That work is required now to receive SSI benefits and it’s hard to be perfect.

In February 2023, the SSA announced its proposal to omit food from its calculations of ISM. If put into effect, Supplemental Security Income recipients who receive this type of support may no longer see their benefits shrink as a result. In addition, they would no longer need to report their food expenses to the SSA.

This is a huge change that provides relief to families who want to focus on care, inclusion and health instead of reporting and bookkeeping.

“The complexities of our current food ISM policies may outweigh their utility,” the SSA states in its proposed rule. “The current requirements for reporting in-kind food receipts could discourage SSI applicants and recipients from receiving an often informal but important form of help.”

In addition to simplifying reporting requirements for SSI recipients as well as processing time for the SSA, the SSA says the new rule would “provide increased financial security to impacted beneficiaries; provide consistent treatment of food support regardless of source; … and facilitate improved food security among beneficiaries.”

For once, we see some rationality coming from government. Let’s let individuals with disabilities live without fear of losing income and access to meals and instead focus on living quality lives.