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Social Security and You: Supplemental Security Income -- It Is a Welfare Program

Tom Margenau on

This is going to be a column about the Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. In other words, it will NOT be a column about Social Security. Supplemental Security Income and Social Security are two entirely different government programs. They really have nothing to do with each other, other than the fact that they are both managed by the Social Security Administration.

I'm emphasizing the difference between the two programs because millions of people think SSI stands for Social Security Income. Every single day, I get emails from people who tell me they are getting SSI, when they really mean to say they are getting Social Security. So if you are one of those people, then please remember you are getting Social Security, not SSI.

But the reason I'm writing this column today is because of an email I got from someone whose son really is getting SSI. Here it is.

Q: My son, who is now 42, has been disabled since birth and is getting SSI. He started getting SSI when he was 18. I will be turning 62 and plan to file for my Social Security. I've been told my son might lose his SSI when I go on Social Security. Can you explain that? And by the way, in a past column, you referred to SSI as a welfare program. I beg to differ. I would never have filed for any kind of welfare benefits for my son. He is getting a supplemental Social Security check.

A: I will explain what will happen with your son's SSI checks when you go on Social Security in a bit. But first, let me straighten out the benefits your son is currently getting.

I'm sure you've heard the phrase: "If it looks like a duck and walks like a duck and quacks like a duck -- it's a duck." Well, if a government program looks like a welfare program, runs like a welfare program and has rules like a welfare program -- it's a welfare program. And believe me, SSI is a welfare program. To explain this further, let me give a quick history lesson.

 

For most of its history, our country did not have a national welfare system. Even though there was federal money involved, welfare programs were administered by states and sometimes even by cities and counties. And there were wildly different eligibility rules from one place to another. Someone might qualify for welfare benefits in one jurisdiction, but someone down the road in the next county in even poorer circumstances couldn't get benefits.

And there were all kinds of stories of these local welfare offices being run like little fiefdoms. In other words, if you knew the right person, or maybe if you were the right religion, or had the right color skin, or if you didn't speak English with an accent, you were much more likely to qualify for a little help from the system.

Enter Richard Nixon, or more precisely, some higher ups in the Nixon Administration. In the early 1970s, they realized that something needed to be done about our nation's welfare mess. Their solution was to standardize and federalize the system. They set up one national welfare program with one set of rules that would apply to everyone in the country. They called the program Supplemental Security Income and they gave it to the Social Security Administration to run because that agency had the right infrastructure and the right kind of experience to manage a federal benefits program. (And let me quickly add here that SSI is funded entirely by general government revenues, NOT by Social Security taxes.)

And I remember the very early days within the SSA when we took on the SSI program. And in those early days, some overly conscientious executives within the organization decided to not tell people that SSI was a welfare program. It was drummed into us that we were not to refer to SSI as welfare because that word has negative connotations. We were to tell people it was a "needs-based" program.

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