Disabled Adults Shouldn’t Have to Pay This Price to Marry

In 2004 Heather Hancock and Craig Blackburn were set up on a blind date while attending a Down syndrome advocacy conference. “I knew right away Craig was who I wanted to marry,” Ms. Hancock told me.

But Mr. Blackburn lived in Metairie, La., and Ms. Hancock in Oklahoma City. They visited each other when they could and talked on the phone constantly. The relationship grew over the next three years, and eventually Mr. Blackburn proposed. Their parents supported their relationship, but they knew that legal marriage would be complicated.

Ms. Hancock, 40, and Mr. Blackburn, 44, both receive Supplemental Security Income, a federal program for people with little to no income and assets who have a disability or are over the age of 65. S.S.I. is also a gateway to Medicaid and its waiver programs, which provide health care, help with living independently, and transportation. When policymakers established S.S.I. in 1972, they sought to ensure that people with disabilities would not fall into poverty.

To receive the benefit in 2024, a person with a disability generally must earn less than $1,971 per month and have no more than $2,000 in assets. The income limits are a calculation of what someone in a particular financial situation needs to make ends meet. But the asset limitation for S.S.I. recipients hasn’t been adjusted since 1989, and marriage between two S.S.I. beneficiaries results in a devastating decrease in financial support. In 2024, an individual may receive up to $943 in federal S.S.I. a month, but a married couple may receive only $1,415 and must have less than $3,000 in assets.

Marriage penalties derive from the assumption that when two people live together, their expenses are shared. And it’s true that some expenses — like rent and household utilities — may be reduced in those circumstances. But the amount people with disabilities receive from S.S.I., even single people, is now too low to cover the basic needs of modern life.

In March, 7.4 million people collected S.S.I. benefits; 84 percent of them were eligible because of a disability. Rather than keeping people with disabilities above the poverty line, S.S.I. restrictions are preventing them from leading independent lives and marrying. S.S.I. asset and income limits need to be raised and marriage penalties should be eliminated.

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