Project Alex: Things I Do Not Understand

Part 1 of what will surely be an infinite series.

When Alex turns eighteen, he will be eligible for Medicaid and also for SSI Benefits. SSI stands for “Supplemental Security Income,” and according to the Web site, it is intended for “disabled adults and children who have limited income and resources.” We estimate that under this program, Alex will be given something like $700 a month — could be more; might be less — which is somehow supposed to pay for 100% of his food, clothing, and shelter.

How “limited” must Alex’s resources be before he qualifies for this program?

He cannot have more than $2,000 to his name.

The same goes for anybody 65 years of age or older who applies for SSI benefits. If you have $2,598 in your checking account, the government says, “Yeah? Okay, you’re obviously set for life.” And there will be no benefits for you.

There are many flavors of wackiness to dissect here. In no particular order:

1) I am trying to comprehend how the bureaucrats concluded that if you have $2,001 in assets, you are in no need of assistance. Somebody, somewhere, decided this; other people thought it made good sense; and it has been enshrined in law ever since.

My bafflement at this led me to write to the Social Security Historian, who is a real person and who wrote back to me just two days later to say: Beats me. All he could say was that in the original law, passed in 1972, the threshhold was set at $1,500. It was upped to $2,000 in 1984 and has remained there ever since.

2) I played around with this adjusted for inflation calculator and learned the following: The $1,500 mark established in 1972 would be about $8,500 today. The $2,000 mark put in place in 1984 would be about $4,500 today. Any way you cut it, from the beginning of the program to the present day, SSI is only given to those with pretty much no money or assets at all. So why not just make it zero? What is the point of setting the mark at an all-but-useless two grand? I would love to understand this.

3) Reading the SSI Web site, it would certainly seem that the benefits are intended only for those at the direst level of poverty. Except, no, because every single person we have spoken to about this assumes we will apply for, and receive, the benefit, as soon as we game the system in the approved manner. For Alex, this will take the form of the Special Needs Trust, which, if we go that route, we will fill with as much money as we can manage. If we make the horrible mistake of overlooking some passbook savings account started when he was five, and that account now has $2,165 in it, he’s screwed. But we can put a hillion jillion dollars into a trust fund and as long as we call it the right thing, the SSA is peachy-fine with it.

Granted, the trust fund money can’t be used for basics like food and clothing, but that doesn’t change what for me is the core absurdity here. “We have very strict rules. You can get around them in the following ways…”

Since starting this project, I’ve heard from a few people who assure me that dealing with the Social Security Administration is a total freaking nightmare. I have an appointment early next week with our financial advisor, who specializes in preparaing for the future needs of disabled children. He is a strong advocate of Special Needs Trusts, so that we can get SSI benefits for our son. We plan on asking him if there isn’t some other way forward. We might be able to make it work. I don’t know. But it’s hard to imagine that most people could manage this — a lot of people don’t start planning early enough, or they simply don’t have the resources to free themselves from the yoke of government assistance. I’m no fan of state lottery games, but sometimes I understand why they’re so popular. For a lot of disabled kids, the two choices are Powerball, or Poverty.

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