It’s no secret that the current minimum wage across the U.S. is not sufficient to live a comfortable, independent life in which all basic expenses are covered from having a single job. With unemployment on the rise and the rising costs of housing, healthcare, food, and overall living, many people are struggling to make ends meet. This is why it is all the more horrifying that people with disabilities have all these limitations and restrictions that essentially force many into poverty. Most of the major public assistance programs we have are means-tested, which means that applicants and recipients must have an income below a certain level to qualify for assistance. And most means-tested programs also have asset tests, which deny eligibility to applicants with more than a certain amount of assets, including cash, vehicles, or other property. These limitations were intended to ensure that only the truly “needy” people, without significant savings or other assets, received help. On the surface this sounds like a good thing, however the reality is rarely that simple. These limitations force people to spend their earnings, instead of building their savings, to keep their benefits from being cut. Asset limits force people and families to deplete savings and sell assets to qualify for assistance. And without savings, emergencies and accidents like a short-term job loss, an unusually high utility bill during sudden weather changes, an unexpected health emergency, or a car breakdown can result in a downward spiral that sets people back. Benefit recipients are basically forced to deplete their existing savings, compromising their long-term economic security, just so they can get the immediate and, often life-saving relief provided by these benefits programs.
Public assistance programs are determined at many levels, and each state has its own requirements, which may change annually. Within each state, each target constituent group has its own requirements. The variability across programs and across states can make it difficult applying for and receiving needed assistance. Not to mention, reviewing prospective and current beneficiaries’ reported assets is administratively burdensome and costly for both the states and the applicants compiling that information. Even when you manage to make it past the requirements and limitations, the benefits and assistance received are rarely enough. For example, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides modest monthly cash assistance to seniors and people with significant disabilities that preclude substantial gainful employment.
- In 2020, the maximum SSI federal benefit was $783 per month, or 74% of the federal poverty level, however the average SSI benefit is only $446 for seniors. And SSI benefits are reduced when recipients have other income .
- Asset limitations prevent SSI recipients from saving more than $2,000 (or only $3,000 for a married couple) .
- “SSI recipients can receive only $20 a month from non-employment sources before their SSI benefits are cut dollar-for-dollar.” 
- SSI recipients can earn only $65 a month from work before their benefits are reduced .
Because of these limits, not only are beneficiaries depleting their monthly earnings to maintain eligibility, but couples are also penalized due to the lower asset limit for married individuals. As unmarried individuals you can each have $2,000 in savings, whereas if you are a married couple, you can only have $3,000 in savings combined. Also, since there is a limit put on how much recipients can earn from work before their benefits are reduced, those who can work may be discouraged from working. And it takes money out of the pockets of extremely low-income seniors who do work . Not to mention, some of these provisions haven’t been updated in over 40 years. So, while the overall cost of living has been increasing, there haven’t been changes made to the eligibility conditions for public assistance programs. This leaves people just one emergency away from homelessness and hunger. The harms caused by asset limits are far-reaching, trapping disabled people and families in dangerous economic conditions and contributing to the disproportionately high poverty and unemployment rates they may face.
Ultimately, asset and income limitations undermine the long-term financial security of people with disabilities trap recipients in poverty. Many disabled people can’t work without risking their eligibility by surpassing the asset or income limits that program have in place. Raising or eliminating these limits promotes long-term savings and economic independence rather than dependence on immediate aid. We must also get rid of the negativity surrounding public assistance programs because it stigmatizes people with disabilities as lazy, deceitful, or unworthy for seeking out the support needed to navigate environments that are inaccessible and ableist. We need to be working towards having accessible environments, equal pay and treatment.