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In traditional marriage vows, husband and wife promise to care for each other “in sickness and in health, till death do us part.” But when one or both of the intended spouses are sufficiently sick or disabled, the United States government is the unwelcome wedding guest who offers a reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony. One of the cruelest marriage penalties in America’s tax and benefits regime is reserved for the most vulnerable—the poor and disabled.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a safety net for low-income Americans who, due to age or disability, have a limited ability to work. Unlike a parallel program for disabled Americans (Social Security Disability Insurance), the monthly stipend offered by SSI is not contingent on a previous work history. Though about 7.5 million Americans receive SSI payments, for half of them the payments are not enough to lift them above the poverty line.  

SSI beneficiaries are subjected to intensely restrictive, non-inflation-indexed asset caps. A single person can't have more than $2000 in savings or other semi-liquid assets, and a married person can't have more than $3000 of joint assets. If a husband and wife were trying to be prudent and hoped to build a stable life without the safety net of SSI, they’d be cut off from support well before they could build a reasonable emergency fund.

That means planning for a wedding when one or both of the couple is disabled and receiving SSI involves some extra steps beyond talking to the priest or picking out a dress. The non-disabled spouse might be in a hurry to trade her car before the wedding for the cheapest beater car available. A couple can only have one car exempted from the asset limit, even if both can and need to drive. The “extra” car counts against the amount of pooled savings the couple is allowed to have. It’s also a good time for the fiancé to stop paying premiums on the life insurance he hoped might ease the burden on his soon-to-be wife and potential children—SSI recipients are only allowed to have life insurance with a combined cash value of $1500 or less.  

When marriage throws an SSI recipient off the benefit rolls, the couple can lose much more than the monthly check. Many states automatically qualify SSI recipients for Medicaid, including in-home help. Losing that eligibility means not just losing a stipend of about $8,000 a year; it also means shouldering the $50–70,000 per year it would cost to hire help without assistance. 

That’s a heavy burden to bind on the backs of those who can least bear it. As SSI recipient Amber Weise told Sara Luterman at The 19th, choosing to marry meant risking her life. Because her husband held an $18 per hour job, she was quickly disqualified from SSI and lost the home care she had received through Medicaid. Her spinal muscular atrophy meant she couldn’t use the bathroom independently, so she deliberately dehydrated herself every day so she could wait out the many hours until her husband came home. She and her husband could have kept things “unofficial,” but, for Weise, it was better to be subject to an unjust temporal law than to break God’s law. For other couples, the risk of losing their payments and their healthcare is too much, forcing them to put aside their hopes for marriage and children. 

Wedding someone who receives SSI means pledging to marry in sickness and in health (with the expectation that there will be a lot of the former). But the government compels an additional pledge to stand by each other “for poorer and ever poorer.” Because the asset and income limits aren’t pegged to inflation, every year, the screws tighten. This year, Congress might lift that burden by passing the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, which would stop punishing the disabled poor for pursuing savings and stability. The bill would raise asset limits to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for married couples, eliminating the penalty and adjusting them for inflation in the future.

It's a long overdue fix for a policy that has become a poverty trap. For single and married SSI recipients, the asset caps make it impossible to prudently plan for the future. For those who wish to marry, the government’s policy obstructs the one comfort that is available to rich and poor alike—the opportunity to pledge your life for the good of another. The asset caps are the best place to start fixing SSI, with bipartisan groups building momentum for the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, but it shouldn’t be the end of improvements. 

Beyond marriage penalties, the SSI’s scoring system for “in kind” aid (non-cash contributions of goods or services) strikes at familial love and friendships, just as the asset and income limits punish marriage. When the mother of an SSI recipient allows her son to live with her rent-free, his benefits are reduced by up to a third to compensate for the “asset” of his mother’s love and home. If a friend picks up groceries and grills for his housebound college buddy, the cost of those groceries is “income,” which is offset by a reduction in benefits. 

At every turn, SSI penalizes people for being part of a community of care. It’s as though the government took Jesus’s warning that “the poor you will always have with you” not as a reminder to ask how we might help, but as an instruction to penalize the weakest among us and those who love and help them.

Leah Libresco Sargeant is the author of Arriving at Amen and Building the Benedict Option

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