Every single day, I get emails from people who will say something like this: “My wife and I are getting SSI.” Or this: “We have some questions about our SSI checks.” Or this: “If I die, will my wife get any of my SSI?”
I know from experience these folks think that SSI stands for Social Security Income. Or maybe Social Security Insurance. But it does not. SSI is the abbreviation for Supplemental Security Income. It is a federal welfare program that pays a small monthly stipend to poor people who are either over age 65 or younger than that but disabled. The program just happens to be managed by the Social Security Administration, which leads to all kinds of confusion.
Some people think that SSI is just some kind of supplemental Social Security benefit. It is not. It is a completely separate program. Others complain that SSI (i.e., welfare) benefits are paid for by Social Security taxes. They are not. SSI payments are funded by general tax revenues. And as I pointed out at the beginning of this column, still others think that SSI means Social Security Income or Social Security Insurance.
So why is there all this confusion? Well, there is a tale to tell. And remember, this story is coming from a retired SSA employee. To start the narrative, we have to go back to the early 1970s. Before that time, the Social Security Administration was chugging nicely along as a rather quiet and friendly federal agency. It had a reputation for good and efficient service. It was known as a great place to work. The programs we administered (primarily retirement, disability and survivor benefits) could have some complicated rules and regulations to deal with, but they were still rather straightforward and easy to manage.
Then, in 1973, President Richard Nixon and Congress were looking for an agency to run a new federal welfare program they had just created. Before this legislation passed, welfare benefits for the elderly poor and indigent people with disabilities of any age were a hodge-podge mess. Each state, and sometimes each county, had its own welfare program and its own welfare rules. There were all kinds of inequities in this system. An elderly widow with little money and few resources might be denied benefits in one town, but just down the road over the county line, some guy who was in much better financial shape might qualify for a sizeable monthly cash payment.
Because there were tens of thousands of examples of these kinds of inconsistencies, enough pressure was put on Congress and the Nixon administration to do something. And what they decided to do was get rid of all the state and local welfare programs and create one large federal program with standardized eligibility rules that applied to everyone in the country. The program then, as today, is designed to supplement a person’s income up to certain levels depending on a person’s living situation. Today, for example, if you’re living in a home that you own or rent, your monthly income — be it from Social Security or veterans benefits or any other source — can be supplemented up to about $770. (Some states add on to the federal SSI payment, so the amount may be higher where you live.)
Following the creation of the program, two big issues had to be dealt with. The first was a name. They came up with Supplemental Security Income. Not a bad name. After all, the program did just what its name implied: It supplemented someone’s income to give them some small degree of financial security.
But that name became a problem once they took on the second issue they had to deal with: who would manage the program. Congress and the White House chose the Social Security Administration for some logical reasons. SSA had experience in running large federal programs; there was a lot of overlap in their clientele (many poorer Social Security beneficiaries would qualify for SSI); SSA had a vast network of field offices around the country. So the agency was allowed to recruit thousands of new employees, and this strange new program was dumped in our laps.
Many old-time SSA employees resented the change. Our quiet agency that had been managing the clean and relatively simple Social Security program would now also be running a welfare program. And welfare programs are notoriously messy to administer. And, let’s be honest: Some of their clients can be a bit untidy as well. For example, I remember one of my first interviews after SSA took on the SSI program. I was working out of a small Social Security office in a rural Midwestern town. My customer was a woman applying for widows benefits. When she sat down at my desk, she complained mightily, saying, “I can’t believe I was forced to sit next to a smelly drunken bum in the waiting room!” That tipsy gentleman was in the office to sign up for the new SSI program. I tried to be as politically correct as I could and pointed out that he had just as much of a right as she did to be in our government office. Still, she wasn’t convinced and said, “Well, I just don’t like what is happening to Social Security.”
And I’ve got to be honest. I didn’t like what was happening to Social Security, either. The program itself certainly didn’t change. But the atmosphere did. There were even rumors among SSA staffers that this was all a plot hatched by Nixon to destroy people’s respect for the Social Security program and to erode their confidence in the Social Security Administration. That was going a bit too far. After all, you will recall that in the 1970s, Nixon had much bigger things to worry about. Something called Watergate!
Even though I’ve long since retired, I must admit I rue the day SSA took on the SSI program. It caused confusion back then. And if my emails are any indication, it still does today. Also, I believe the morale of SSA employees isn’t what it once was, and I think service has declined.
But, as they say, it is what it is. So let me remind my readers one more time what SSI is. It is a federal welfare program that just happens to be managed by the Social Security Administration. It has nothing to do with Social Security other than the fact that Social Security offices run the program. It is also important to note that SSI payments come out of general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. And finally, remember this: If you are getting a Social Security check, you are NOT getting SSI.