Tom Margenau

Q: I was in my local Social Security office recently. While I was sitting in the waiting room, I noticed a pamphlet on a table that was titled, “What Prisoners Need to Know about Social Security.”

If we are handing out Social Security checks to deadbeats sitting in prison who already get free room and board supplied by taxpayers, no wonder the system is going broke!

A: I’m not really sure why that specialized Social Security Administration publication was lying around in an office waiting room. Still, had you bothered to pick it up and skim it, you would have learned that Social Security benefits are NOT payable to people who are in jail or prison after being convicted of a crime.

Before I explain the rules in more detail, I’m going to give a short history lesson. Also, I must stress that for much of this column, I will be referring to money paid by the Social Security program, usually either retirement or disability benefits. Near the end of this column, I will briefly mention the rules for the Supplemental Security Income program. Now for that history lesson.

For the first half-century or more of the program, people who were getting Social Security benefits who ended up in prison still got their checks while they were incarcerated. I’m sure the thinking was this: These people worked and paid taxes and earned their Social Security benefit, so they should get that earned benefit no matter where they lived — even if that was behind bars.

I remember early in my career with the Social Security Administration, I worked for a while in a Social Security office in a Midwestern town that was also home to the state prison. Part of my job had me paying a once-a-week visit to that facility to handle any Social Security business for the inmates. That sometimes included routine matters like helping an inmate replace a lost or stolen Social Security card, or helping an older inmate with a minor Social Security issue. But most of my time during those prison visits involved taking claims for Social Security disability benefits from young men who had heard through the prison grapevine that the government was handing out free money (in the form of Social Security disability checks) to inmates. That got me frustrated. I knew all the paperwork I was filling out was for naught, as all of those claims were going to be denied.

But the kind of thinking that allowed incarcerated people to take their Social Security checks to jail, or apply for Social Security disability benefits while in jail, changed in the 1980s and 1990s as the country, and Congress, got more conservative. I recall newspaper stories and other media reports highlighting prisoners who were supposedly “living the good life” with their Social Security checks, having far more disposable income than your average convict. Voters started clamoring for change, and Congress couldn’t act quickly enough to stop paying Social Security benefits to people behind bars.

Since then, the rules have said that Social Security benefits cannot be paid for months that a person is confined to a jail, prison or certain other public institutions for committing a crime. Or to be more precise, benefits are suspended if someone is convicted of a criminal offense and sent to jail or prison for more than 30 continuous days. Notice that conviction is the key. Lots of people end up in jails while they are awaiting trial or pleas. But until there is a conviction with prison time involved, benefits will continue.

It’s also important to note that while the convict’s benefits are suspended, if he or she has a spouse or child getting monthly Social Security dependent checks on his or her record, those benefits will continue.

Of course, most people don’t spend the rest of their lives in prison. When they are released, Social Security benefits will be reinstated the month following the month they get out.

Speaking of getting out, I’ve heard there is an underground information network in many prisons that would have younger convicts believe that as soon as they are released, they can go to their nearest Social Security office and sign up for disability benefits. Not true. Of course, anyone has the right to apply for Social Security disability benefits. But no one will get those benefits unless he or she meets all of the stringent qualifying criteria. For example, they must have worked and paid Social Security taxes in five out of the last 10 years. And they must have a disability so severe it is expected to keep them from being able to work for at least a year.

So far, I’ve just been talking about Social Security benefits. But SSA runs another program for the federal government called Supplemental Security Income. SSI pays a small monthly welfare stipend (usually around $700) to low-income elderly people and to people under age 65 with disabilities who are down on their luck. (And every time I mention SSI in this column, I am quick to point out that SSI payments come out of general tax revenues, NOT out of the Social Security trust funds.)

SSI payment rates have always depended on a person’s living arrangements. And if you are living in a place where the government foots the bill for your expenses (like in a jail or prison), then you don’t qualify for SSI while you are there. In other words, Congress didn’t have to change the law to ban SSI checks from going to prisoners. The law has always made sure that didn’t happen.

But once a person who was previously on SSI gets out, his or her federal welfare checks can be reinstated. However, if that person has been in jail for a year or more, he or she must file a whole new application for SSI.

Contact Tom Margenau at thomas.margenau@comcast.net