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Supplemental Security Income rules can limit the people the program is meant to help

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In 1972, it was a bold, innovative idea - a U.S. government program that paid a guaranteed monthly income. Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, sent checks to some of the poorest, disabled and elderly to help them pay for rent, food and other expenses to lift them up from poverty. But our reporting found that, today, the program traps people in poverty instead. NPR investigative correspondent Joseph Shapiro tells us about this forgotten safety net.

JOSEPH SHAPIRO, BYLINE: One of the biggest traps is Supplemental Security Income's limit on how much you can own - $2,000. That's it. If you have a dollar more than that in savings or possessions - other than one car or your own home - you get kicked off the program. That $2,000 limit - it hasn't been changed since 1989.

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SHAPIRO: It's pretty hard to stay under that $2,000 limit on assets, which was clear on a visit to the Terry Funeral Home. It's been a fixture in West Philadelphia, serving generations of Black families.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Amen.

SHAPIRO: And today, as one funeral service ends, Karen Williams has come to tell the funeral director about a problem.

GREGORY BURRELL: How are you?

KAREN WILLIAMS: God bless.

SHAPIRO: She's been trying to do the responsible thing and save money to pay for her own funeral one day. But that federal assistance program says she can't.

BURRELL: Yeah, the Lord. We see that all the time.

SHAPIRO: Gregory Burrell, the funeral home director, is familiar with the problem.

BURRELL: And unfortunately, people don't know any better, and they're stressing. And these insurance policies are considered assets.

SHAPIRO: That's what got Karen Williams into trouble with the federal government. Williams is disabled. She doesn't work. For income, she depends upon SSI. People who get SSI are required to report everything they own to Social Security, which runs the program, and let the agency monitor their bank accounts and collect income data.

Williams reported her checking account. She didn't know her life insurance policy counted. She bought it so her kids wouldn't need to pay for her burial, to use after she died. She didn't know the policy had a modest cash value, that she could turn it in for $1,900.

WILLIAMS: I would have definitely went by the rules. I didn't know I was breaking them.

SHAPIRO: Until the day in 2019, when she got a letter from Social Security telling her, you need to come to our office. That's where a staffer told her Social Security found records of that insurance policy, plus the couple hundred dollars she'd saved in the bank. As a result, she'd gone over the asset limit by $160 and had been for the last two years.

WILLIAMS: They come to me several years later and say, oh, you owe $20,000.

SHAPIRO: That's right. For going $160 over the limit, she now owed $20,385 because Social Security was counting all the SSI checks it sent her in the two years she'd been over the limit and demanding all of that money back, even though Social Security only discovered the problem now. And she had 30 days to pay it back, which was impossible. She's poor. She depends upon SSI, an assistance program that said she couldn't save more than the $2,000 asset limit.

KATHLEEN ROMIG: The impact of it is just cruel.

SHAPIRO: Kathleen Romig recently went to work as a senior adviser to the commissioner of Social Security. She works on making programs like SSI more fair to children. When we interviewed her last year, she wasn't speaking for Social Security. She worked at a Washington think tank, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, where she wrote about raising the asset limit or ending it altogether because it stops people from saving.

ROMIG: We know that saving is good. We know that we can use savings to invest in things that can make people's lives better, like, for example, education or safe and stable housing. We know that saving is necessary for that. And yet we're prohibiting some of the poorest, most vulnerable people from doing just that.

SHAPIRO: That $2,000 asset limit traps people on SSI in poverty. Some 7.5 million people rely on SSI.

ROMIG: SSI is stuck in the past. It's hardly been changed over 50 years.

SHAPIRO: Like that asset limit - since SSI started in 1972, it's been increased just once.

ROMIG: If the resource limit in SSI had been updated simply for inflation over the last 50 years, it would be $10,000 now.

SHAPIRO: Last year, a group of Democratic and Republican lawmakers, led by Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, introduced legislation to increase the limit to $10,000.

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SHERROD BROWN: The government shouldn't punish people for wanting to do the right thing and save money by taking away the benefits they rely on to live.

SHAPIRO: But the bill stalled, largely because of cost. We heard of dozens of cases from SSI recipients and their lawyers, of people disabled, eligible and in need who were denied SSI or cut off of SSI benefits because they went over that low $2,000 asset limit. A New York man told us about going to the Social Security office and being denied because he owned a worthless timeshare in the Poconos.

PETER BALLETTI: That's what he - I was told by the - my caseworker there - don't even because you still have the timeshare. You're ineligible, period. Have a nice day.

SHAPIRO: Peter Balletti tried to sell it without success because he owned it with his ex-wife. But to Social Security, it was an asset that put him over that $2,000 limit on how much he could own.

Another man told us he wanted to move from an unsafe and rundown apartment. But when he saved up for the deposit and rent on a new place, Social Security said he was over the asset limit and would get kicked off SSI.

An immigrant mother co-signed a car loan for her son and then lost her SSI even though she never uses the car.

A Virginia Holocaust survivor received a reparations check from Germany and was told - improperly, it turned out - that he couldn't keep the check and his SSI too.

Back at the funeral home...

BURRELL: The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me to lie down...

SHAPIRO: Gregory Burrell, the funeral director, and Karen Williams talk of how past generations of Black families had little access to saving, but their parents and grandparents put aside money to pay for their funerals.

BURRELL: And every week or two weeks, whenever the insurance guy came, he would mark the book and take the money out.

WILLIAMS: With the little book...

BURRELL: Oh, yeah.

WILLIAMS: That brings back memories.

BURRELL: Oh, my God. Yeah. People did it.

WILLIAMS: Yeah.

BURRELL: It was probably 50 cent a week, but they had it.

SHAPIRO: For Karen Williams, it was embarrassing when she lost her SSI checks. She got by with help from her children and friends. She found a lawyer at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia who helped her challenge the big bill she got from SSI. Recently, Social Security put her back on SSI and conceded it made a mistake and would waive the money she owed, but then still deducted thousands of dollars from her checks. She's still fighting SSI.

WILLIAMS: It's really tiresome. I am so, so through with this. And I can believe that a lot of people just give up.

SHAPIRO: She's correct. This system is filled with mistakes, and Social Security's own numbers show that fewer and fewer people are even applying for those monthly Supplemental Security Income benefits.

Joseph Shapiro, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF COMMON SONG, "THEY SAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Joseph Shapiro
Joseph Shapiro is a NPR News Investigations correspondent.
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