The safety net program trapping people in poverty

The safety net program trapping people in poverty

David Williams/Bloomberg via Getty Images

What if you were legally allowed to only ever have $2,000 in financial assets at one time?

Saving is hard. Whether for emergencies, special occasions, or retirement, a lot of us fall short. In fact, almost half of Americans don’t have three months worth of expenses saved.

And for some, it’s partly because they aren’t allowed to.

Imagine you have to stop working for whatever reason, but legally you’ve only been allowed to build up $2,000 in savings.

Could you make it through one month — let alone more? First, you have rent. Let’s say it runs you $1,109 (that’s an average monthly rent for Michigan, one of the cheaper states in the US).

That leaves you with $891. After utilities and internet and groceries and any other bills, there’s not much left for day-to-day life or unexpected emergencies. And rent the next month would be impossible.

But this isn’t a pretend “let’s learn personal finance” moment. This is a real financial barrier that millions of Americans have to live with.

Americans like Tyler Lima-Roope, a popular TikToker from California who raises awareness about living with a disability and who receives Supplemental Security Income, or SSI.

SSI is a program that supports low-income adults and children with disabilities. So why does a program that’s supposed to help Americans who have nowhere else to turn, instead … trap them in poverty?

How SSI traps people in poverty, explained

To get an answer to that question on a recent episode of The Weeds, I reached out to Kathleen Romig, the director of Social Security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

According to her, when the program was founded in 1972, it was — and still is — considered a last resort: You receive it after applying for all the other social safety nets you qualify for. Qualifying requires specific medical and vocational criteria, meaning that in order to receive the benefit, you not only need to be living with a disability, but the disability must also prevent you from earning $1,500 a month.

SSI is about more than just a stipend, though; health care access comes along with it. In some states, receiving SSI means you’re automatically eligible for Medicaid, and Medicaid covers what’s known as “home and community-based services.” That means people with disabilities can receive care in their homes rather than in institutional settings.

But in order to qualify for SSI, individual beneficiaries can’t have assets worth over $2,000 and couples can’t have assets over $3,000. And that’s not just checking accounts: it takes things like mutual funds, retirement, and even car values into account. If you go over that limit, you lose that month’s check.

The asset cap hasn’t been updated since the 1980s — and not for any particular reason. When it was created, it wasn’t enacted to be automatically adjusted for inflation; if it had been, the SSI cap would be about six times what it is right now.

SSI has fallen by the policy wayside, leaving the 7.5 million Americans who rely on the program between a rock and hard place: lose health care and other benefits, or forgo opportunities like saving for the future and getting married.

Is there any way out?

Given that not much has changed for SSI in the past 40 years, the obvious answer is raising the asset cap. But that can’t happen short of an act of Congress.

The good news? There’s bipartisan legislation proposed in the House and Senate that would raise the limit to $10,000 per individual and $20,000 per couple. This would allow individuals to save more and also rids the program of its marriage penalty.

The less than good news? Neither bill has yet come up for a floor vote. And in our current era of hyperpolarization, Congress is moving especially slow, even on legislation that keeps the country running, let alone updating outdated caps for social safety net programs.

Romig says the lack of change regarding SSI isn’t really a political issue — she has yet to come across anyone on either side of the aisle who thinks raising the asset limit is a bad idea. It’s an attention issue; many people who don’t interact with SSI on a day-to-day basis aren’t aware of the low asset cap.

The better news is that there is a possible workaround: ABLE accounts.

These are state-run tax-advantaged accounts, similar to 529 accounts that parents use to save for a child’s education. ABLE account limits can be as high as $550,000, depending on the state, and don’t count toward the asset limit.

At its inception, it was for people who had a disability before the age of 26, but a new provision in the 2020 appropriations bill raised the qualification age by 20 years, starting in 2026.

But once again, there’s a gap in awareness: less than 1 percent of people who qualify for ABLE accounts have one.

Here’s hoping this story — and my full conversation with Romig on the latest episode of The Weeds — are one tiny step toward changing that.

This story appeared originally in Today, Explained, Vox’s flagship daily newsletter. Sign up here for future editions.

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