The U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, DC
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Efforts to expand a federal program for disabled, elderly and blind Americans suffered a setback on Thursday when the Supreme Court ruled that residents of Puerto Rico should be excluded from receiving these benefits.
The program, called Supplemental Security Income or SSI, currently provides monthly checks to about 7.7 million eligible Americans. But because it is aimed at people with low incomes and few resources, the program comes with strict rules for income and wealth limit.
Some lawmakers have proposed updating the program, which has rules that have not been updated since its inception in 1972.
Last year, the House of Representatives included a major change – the expansion of SSI to residents of U.S. territories – when it adopted the Democrats’ Build Back Better package.
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This change will include residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands and American Samoa. Residents of the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands are already eligible to receive SSI benefits.
But that legislation has since stalled on Capitol Hill.
On Thursday, the Supreme Court upheld the federal law denying residents of Puerto Rico access to SSI benefits. A lower court of appeal had previously ruled that it was unconstitutional to exclude residents of Puerto Rico from SSI.
The Supreme Court decision is a major blow to the estimated 436,000 people in Puerto Rico who could potentially qualify for SSI, according to Kathleen Romig, director of social security and disability policy at the Center for Budget and Political Priorities.
“It would make a big difference for these people because they are people who are by definition poor and have very low savings,” Romig said. “Even having a few hundred dollars more a month can make a significant difference.”
Puerto Rico residents can access a program called Aid to the Aged, Blind, and Disabled, or AABD, though it’s more limited than SSI, Romig noted.
Because Puerto Ricans pay payroll taxes that help fund Social Security and Medicare, those who have enough earnings to qualify may also claim Social Security disability benefits.
However, SSI is funded through general revenue, which means that Puerto Ricans do not necessarily contribute directly to the program, an issue that came up during the Supreme Court debate.
Judge Brett Kavanaugh noted in his decision that because residents of Puerto Rico are not held to the same requirements as residents of the American mainland in terms of federal, property or excise duties, they may be treated differently.
“The problem with that analysis in this context is that the program is designed specifically for people who can not pay taxes because they can not work, by definition,” said Sergio M. Marxuach, political director at the Center for a New Economy, a non-profit, non-partisan think tank in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The program was designed for people who qualify for it, whether they live in Montana, New York or San Juan, Marxuach said, due to the fact that they are disabled, elderly or blind.
“If you go to the intent of Congress, it was precisely to help that group of people across the nation,” Marxuach said. “Using it as a justification for the different treatment makes no sense.”
Efforts to update SSI’s rules will continue on Capitol Hill, said Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who has pushed for a broad reform of the program.
“This resolution makes it clear that Congress has a number of urgent priorities to address with SSI: increase the level of benefits; update outdated rules so that beneficiaries can work, save for emergencies and get married without being punished; and now expand SSI benefits; to Americans living in Puerto Rico, “Brown said in a statement.
Without access to SSI, some residents of Puerto Rico may fall through the cracks when it comes to federal government services.
“There is this gap for people who do not have a qualifying work history for social security who only qualify for low benefits and would like additional benefits through SSI,” Romig said.
Moreover, because receiving SSI benefits often automatically qualifies recipients for Medicaid, it can also make it harder for Puerto Rico residents to access health coverage, she said.
“It’s unreasonable to get U.S. citizens, just because of their address, to lose access to a major benefit,” Romig said of SSI.
There is also a “racial and ethnic inequality that is present when excluding territories as opposed to the mainland,” she said.
Rebecca Vallas, a disability lawyer and senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, also expressed disappointment with the decision.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to continue the nation’s long, racist history of excluding Puerto Rico residents from the SSI program is as shameful as it is disappointing,” Vallas said in a statement.
“America should not be discriminating against its own citizens – especially when it comes to something as fundamental as eligibility for survival income programs like SSI,” she said.