Q: I have a neighbor who is in his early 50s. He is a pilot for a major airline and makes pretty good money. He and his wife have several children, one of whom has a rather severe case of Down syndrome. I have heard that this 21-year-old son is collecting about $2,000 per month in welfare benefits from Social Security. Don't get me wrong. I would never want to trade places with these people. But I am just wondering how rich people qualify for welfare benefits? And I'm also wondering why this kid is getting Social Security when his parents aren't even close to Social Security age?
A: Let me set you straight on a number of points. First, your neighbor's son is not getting Social Security. He is probably getting a Supplemental Security Income disability payment. Second, he is not receiving anywhere near $2,000 per month. It might be as much as $800, but is probably closer to around $500 in monthly SSI payments.
Our country's primary safety net for low-income elderly and disabled people is the Supplemental Security Income program. SSI is managed by the Social Security Administration, but it is not paid for out of Social Security taxes. It is funded by general tax revenues. However, the fact that SSA runs the program, coupled with a confusing name that causes folks to believe it is a supplemental Social Security payment, leads most people to think of SSI as a Social Security benefit. I can't emphasize enough that SSI is NOT part of Social Security.
What SSI does is pay a small monthly stipend to folks over age 65 who are poor, and to disabled adults and children who are poor. While your neighbor's son was under age 18, he would not have been eligible for SSI disability benefits. That's because the father's income would have been taken into consideration, and it would have prevented the child from qualifying for what is in effect a welfare payment.
But once the child turns 18, he is considered a legal adult. And as such, the parent's income is no longer considered when deciding his eligibility for SSI payments. So, assuming this 21 year old young disabled man doesn't have any other income and doesn't have much in the way of assets in his name, he would get a monthly SSI disability check. The amount of the check can vary from one state to another, but it is never much more than about $800 per month. And based on my knowledge of the intricacies of the SSI payment structure, my hunch is your neighbor's son is getting about $500.
I am not going to weigh in too heavily on the argument over whether or not the adult children of rich or even middle class parents should qualify for SSI (i.e,, welfare) benefits - although I am inclined to believe that parents caring for severely disabled children should get some help from the government. But I can tell you that many people over the years have objected to these provisions of the law. And I would like to share the true story of one of those (maybe not so "conscientious") objectors.
About 30 years ago, I was working in the Social Security office in the biggest city of a large western state. It was one of the so-called red states. A certain Congressman from that state was as right-wing as a red-state conservative could get. He was popular and was elected over and over again on what was essentially an "I will get the government off your back" platform. Or to put that another way, he was tea party long before there was a real tea party. When he mentioned government programs, he spewed out the words handout and welfare as though he was spitting snake poison out of his mouth. Even though I didn't agree with his politics, I respected his right to voice his opinions.
Tragically, his 19-year-old son was in a major traffic accident that left him a quadriplegic. And a few weeks later, one of the Congressman's aides was sitting at my desk in the Social Security office inquiring about any government benefits that might have been available for the paralyzed young man. I explained that he probably would be eligible for SSI disability benefits. I helped the aide fill out the forms, which he took to the father to sign. Several months later, the son of this wealthy and very conservative government-bashing Congressman was getting a monthly SSI, or welfare, check from the federal government.
Now, I normally would have been just fine with that. This man's family had suffered a crippling tragedy, and I'm sure their medical and other bills were piling up. And I would have guessed that the Congressman was very happy that not only was his son getting a small monthly cash stipend to help defray the costs of his care, but he was also getting Medicaid coverage. (SSI benefits come with automatic Medicaid eligibility. Medicaid is our country's health insurance program for poor elderly and disabled people.)
But what happened next really surprised me. A couple months later, the Congressman was running for re-election. Almost everyone in the state knew that his son was paralyzed, but no one knew he was getting SSI/welfare. One might have hoped that the Congressman would have seen the light and perhaps told voters about the help his son was getting and explained how he now understood that sometimes government programs were necessary and were there to help people out in tough situations. But that's not what happened. Instead, he was out there on the campaign trail spouting his usual rhetoric about government waste and welfare fraud and promising that he would continue the fight to stop the growth of big government. And guess what? He was re-elected in a landslide!