Why using assets to determine benefits eligibility sucks

Let’s take two identical people, Jane and Mary.  Jane and Mary each graduate from college and get good jobs in the same city.  Each earns $45,000 per year.

Jane goes on some trips, but tries not to spend too much.  She uses frequent flier miles to go to Europe.  She brings her lunch to work every day.  She lives in a nice apartment, but it’s nothing fancy, and it’s definitely not her ideal.  She buys decent clothes, but tries not to spend too much.  She manages to save $10,000 each year.  She puts most of her savings into a retirement account, and keeps some handy in a savings account, just in case she needs it.

Mary goes on a fancy vacation every year, spending as she pleases.  She eats out all the time and goes to fancy clubs with high cover charges.  She lived in a luxury apartment for a bit, but now owns a condo in a trendy neighborhood.  She goes to the expensive department stores to buy high-end clothes and shoes.  She keeps around $200 in her checking account.  She doesn’t have any savings, but she doesn’t mind.

Now, Jane and Mary each get sick and have to stop working.  They both apply for SSDI.  Then they need to apply for other services too, like SSI and food stamps.  Mary is able to apply for all of these but Jane is not eligible to even apply for SSI or food stamps.  Why?  Because Jane has savings!

You see, someone decided that to get a lot of federal and state services and aide, what matters is not only income, but also assets, but for some reason they do not count houses toward the asset limits.  So Mary can get extra services that she can use to pay her mortgage, but Jane does not get these services to help pay her rent.  Mary gets help buying food, but Jane does not get help buying food.  Jane did what she was “supposed” to do – she saved for the future.  Now, the government is telling her to spend down all of her hard-earned savings before she can get their help.  And if she needs the money later?  Too bad.  To get help now, Jane needs to spend the money that she could otherwise use in a few years for extra medical bills, food, or clothes.

Now, suppose Mary and Jane both get these extra benefits, after Jane spends all of her savings.  After a few years, Jane and Mary are ready to go back to work!  Yay!  Mary is back where she started (minus a few years of work experience.)  On the other hand, Jane is now behind.  In addition to the same lack of work experience, Jane has also spent her retirement and other savings, and now has to start over.

Guess who I am?  Yup, that’s right.  I keep discovering that there are all sorts of services I can’t get, or even apply for, because I have savings.  Since they don’t look at real estate in calculating assets, I could take all of my savings and buy a house and then I’d get those services…. but I don’t want a house!  Why should I have to spend down my hard-earned savings?  I have spent my entire life (well, almost – I started saving when I was 10) building this up, and I resent being told that I’d get more help now if I’d wasted that money on martinis, fancy cars, designer purses, and the newest electronic gadgets.  I understand that help should be reserved for only those who need it, but if a house isn’t counted towards assets, then I don’t think my retirement fund should be either.  If they want me to spend down the money in my checking account, that’s annoying but fair.  But my retirement account should be off limits!

Our system is broken in many ways, and I believe this is one of them.  After all, if I need to spend more than SSDI provides for new sneakers, an umbrella, unexpected medications, or some other “luxury,” then wouldn’t it be better if I could spend my own money on it?  It would sure be a better use of the cash than buying Hermes bags…. which I don’t even want.

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5 Responses to Why using assets to determine benefits eligibility sucks

  1. stuckintexas says:

    SSDI is not means tested. When you apply for disability even if you qualify financially for SSI you still don’t get it until you are found to be disabled, which could be years.

    Life is stuffed full of unfair situations. When I bought my house I bought the smallest house my family and our stuff could fit in to. My mortgage guy thought I didn’t understand how much house I was approved for. I did, but I didn’t want a mortgage for more than what my husband and I could pay working part time jobs if it ever came to that. My mortgage was $100 month less than my rent at the time.

    Fast forward several years. More than one couple I know bought the most house they could. Suddenly they’re underwater. What happens? They essentially get a bailout, the banks forgive the $25-$40k they are under. So now my friends are paying the same for their house as I did for mine. But when the market wakes up again they’ll get twice what I can.

    Life isn’t fair. Consider yourself lucky you don’t have to grovel for the tiny morsels they throw at you. I never will.

  2. rachelmeeks says:

    Ugh. Our system is broken in so many ways. They have good intentions I suppose, but really this is ridiculous.

    • chronicrants says:

      I wonder if the good intentions were overrun by a lack of experience living in the real world? Maybe these rules were created by people who assumed that only really rich people have savings? You’re right – it’s totally broken.

    • Karen J says:

      Yes CM, and…
      A lot of rule-writers are overrun by fears of “people abusing the system”; and, like you said, without really understanding (or maybe, concern for) “future consequences”.

      • chronicrants says:

        Yes Karen, that’s true. I just get stuck on how best to educate them so that they’ll understand. I wish I had the energy to launch a campaign or something. Maybe one day….

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