Day Twenty Two: What the Hell is SSI?

Yesterday, I felt like an asshole.

In my post yesterday, I got all sassy and silly about why my Civic Association would have offered a reduced “disabled” membership tier. This seemed weird, inappropriate, and unnecessary to me.

In response, Rudy wrote:

Finally, folks living on SSI Disability are on a fixed/limited income like elders and students, so I feel that that designation should remain as an option for a lower supporter fee.

I felt embarrassed by my flippant, snarky comments. This came on the tail of another comment from a reader I had written about, telling me that describing her appearance as resembling that of a Hot Topic store manager was deeply insulting (sorry girl! It’s just those pink tips . . .  but hey, I have a nose ring and Where’s Waldo glasses, so them stones be flyin’ out of a glass house).

Yesterday morning I’d seen Christopher Lehane – the guy who did damage control for Clinton – talk about how to move on gracefully from a faux pas. One of the major suggestions was owning the boo boo, apologizing, and moving on. I decided to take his advice, and wrote Rudy an email, thanking him for his comment, and owning my ignorance.

In response, he wrote:

You’re quite welcome. And hey, when it gets down to the literal meaning of the word, ignorance ia a faultlesss situation. No matter how effective an auto-didact you are, you can’t ever bump into every shred of knowledge you’ll ever need. Which is what makes the public airing of ideas precisely so valuable. 🙂

Gracious and kind. But instead of feeling better, I felt like a bigger asshole. Perhaps if I were really an autodidact I could take comfort in knowing that there are things I don’t know, yet there are so very many which I do. However, since the bulk of my attention has been paid to worrying about myself, my work, my heart, my blog, my job, me – I have felt of late that my desire for this blog project to include self-education has been overshadowed by my propensity for nervous narcissism. I had no idea what SSI Disability even is, and so I googled it; since the title of it appeared in the search results and I could basically infer what it meant, I didn’t bother to click on any of the links to understand it further. I went to bed last night feeling the kind of shame-for-laziness that comes when you can’t bother to get up to wipe your face after sneezing because you’re nuzzled under a blanket; or you try to reach a glass of wine with your foot instead of moving from the sofa; or you don’t write back to a four-line email because it’s too much work. Not that I’ve ever done any of that, or anything. . .

So this morning, I decided to do something about it. And I started with a stop at my local neighborhood Social Security website. 

As the Social Security website explains, there are two kinds of Social Security for people with disabilities:

  • Social Security Disability Insurance pays benefits if you worked and paid social security taxes
  • Supplemental Security Income pays benefits based on financial need

So the residents of my neighborhood who would have been eligible for “disabled” membership to the Civic Association would, I believe, likely have fallen into the first category; the folks written about in Kristof’s article, into the second.

So, how does Social Security define disability? They elaborate:

  • You cannot do work that you did before;
  • We decide that you cannot adjust to other work because of your medical condition(s); and
  • Your disability has lasted or is expected to last for at least one year or to result in death.

OK. I’m interested that it’s expected to last only one year – I don’t know why I thought it would be longer. Moving on, the next tab they have is interesting – “How Much Work Do You Need?” It’s scary to me to think that someone else could decide that for me. What do they say about this?

Wow, this is totally confusing and bizarre. So basically, you need to earn a minimum of $4,520 (that’s four “credits,” which is the most you can earn in one year; one credit = $1130, but only in 2012; the credit/dollar ratio changes every year) per year, for ten years, to receive Social Security Disability.

Yowza. OK – now I want to know about the Supplemental Security Income, which has been my albatross for the past 24 hours. It’s hard to find information, so I’m just going to take the test – the Benefit Eligbility Screening Tool (BEST) to see what I’d need to say in order to qualify.


Some questions pop out to me as strange/intriguing:

#6 – You can choose that you live in a jail. Interesting. At the end, I learn that this disqualifies you from receiving SSI. Fascinating.

#8 – The sample monthly income they list is $2500; seems very high. Is this a trick?

#10 – It asks how many times have you been married. I don’t think a federal form has asked me about quantity, before . . .


So, I failed. No benefits. But the neat thing is that it tells me why I’m ineligible, for all the different categories.

  • I’m too young for retirement
  • I’m too young to receive spouse benefits (?)
  • My spouse is alive
  • I’m not an orphan under 18 with a disability
  • I’m not disabled
  • I might make too much money (even though I put my income at $1500 a month, well below their sample)

Now, what about that magical word Joe-Biden-Owl-Pundit was talking about: JOBS?

Well, If I go to the SSI page and want to learn about going back to work, I am greeted with a website so dense with incomprehensible text that it makes me want to curl up in the fetal position. And when I finally find “Ticket to Work,” which is apparently a program that helps folks get back into jobs, the link is dead. Nice.

Then there is another program, PASS – Plans to Achieve Self-Support, which literally takes the same approach I did with my 11th grade students when we had to set time-bound goals for reading and writing at the start of the school year.

Apparently, PASS includes writing up a plan that explains the job you want, the steps you will take to get there, how much it will cost, and a timetable. According to the site, anyone can help you write the PASS – a friend, a relative, a counselor, or a PASS Specialist. The Social Security Authority then reads the plans and approves it. Then, any money you make that falls within this plan is excluded when they look at your income to determine how much SSI benefits you receive. I took a look at the application, and it’s pretty interesting. And feels like a high school lesson plan.

If I go back to the SSA homepage and click on General Information, I find the amount of SSI benefits; $698 for individuals, and $1048 for a couple. Wow. That’s $8376 per year for an individual.

If I delve deeper into the Children section, here’s another scary bit:

In most States, a child who gets SSI benefits can get Medicaid to help pay medical bills.

In some cases, a child may be eligible for Medicaid while in an institution, but not be eligible when living at home either because of the parents’ income and resources or because of other income.

I wonder if, going back to the converation around twisted incentivization, this causes children to be institutionalized longer than/when not necessary for economic gain? Jesus . . .

So I’m curious – what, if anything, does this all make you think about? What’s something that was new or surprising to you about all of this?

I’d say for me, this is what I’m left thinking about:

  • The PASS Program application – that an official federal program is basically the same as a SMART Goal sheet I gave my students in 11th grade when planning reading goals in the fall.
  • Now I know more about SSI Disability; how it differs from Social Security benefits; the different programs associated with it. So, now what?

One thought on “Day Twenty Two: What the Hell is SSI?

  1. Pingback: Day Twenty-Three: Profiting From a Child’s Illiteracy | Civicization

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