The Social Security Administration is looking to make a big change to the way that it determines monthly payments for people with disabilities receiving Supplemental Security Income benefits.

Currently, SSI beneficiaries can see their payments docked — often by one-third — if someone else regularly provides them with meals or groceries. But under a new plan that would change.

In a proposed rule published this month in the Federal Register, the Social Security Administration said it wants to update its regulations to exclude food from the way it calculates what’s known as “in-kind support and maintenance.” In addition, the agency intends to tweak its definition of income to allow for this exception.

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“We have historically included in-kind receipt of food in our consideration because food assistance helps people meet their basic needs. However, the complexities of our current food (in-kind support and maintenance) policies may outweigh their utility,” the Social Security Administration wrote in its proposal. “Moreover, the current (in-kind support and maintenance) policy may insert barriers into what would otherwise be an innocuous receipt of a meal or food from an individual’s friends or family. The current requirements for reporting in-kind food receipts could discourage SSI applicants and recipients from receiving an often informal but important form of help.”

However, the plan does not include any changes to the way that SSI treats assistance with shelter, meaning that beneficiaries could still see their payments reduced if they do not contribute to rent, mortgage or utility costs for the place where they live.

Even if the proposal is adopted, the Social Security Administration said it still intends to ask beneficiaries if they buy food separately from others in their household, if they eat all meals out and if they receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits.

Disability advocates are welcoming the move to update SSI regulations.

“We know that autistic people and our households are especially at risk for food insecurity, and giving people more ways to get food without jeopardizing their benefits is a step toward addressing this,” said Zoe Gross, director of advocacy at the Autistic Self Advocacy Network. “This rule will benefit members of our community, particularly those who share a household with supporters, or require assistance accessing food.”

David Goldfarb, director of policy at The Arc, called the proposal an “important first step” noting that current rules leave many parents worried about buying food and meals for their adult children with disabilities. However, he indicated that more changes are needed.

“Ideally, in-kind support and maintenance could be eliminated entirely, which would require a statutory change,” Goldfarb said. “Although Social Security estimates that only a small percent of beneficiaries would see their benefits increase, these rules are complex, intrusive and extremely harsh. They impact every beneficiary because they are forced to comply.”

More than 7 million Americans receive SSI each month, with a maximum federal benefit of $914 for individuals and $1,371 for couples.

As of January 2022, the Social Security Administration said that it reduced the benefits of 793,000 recipients because they received help with food or shelter.

The proposed rule will be up for public comment through April 17 before it can be finalized.

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