INCOME MAINTENANCE PROGRAMS

Social Security

            The Social Security program provides benefits to eligible workers and their families when income is reduced or stopped because of retirement, disability or death.

Retirement

            Retirement benefits are available to those who have worked a sufficient amount of time under the Social Security system.  A worker is “fully insured” and is thus eligible to receive retirement benefits if he or she has been credited with at least forty quarters of work, during which time contributions were made to the Social Security system.  A “quarter” of credit is not based on calendar quarters, however.  It is based on dollars earned.  In 1978 one quarter was equal to $250.  Therefore, someone who earned $1,000 of wages in 1978, and had Social Security taxes withheld from those wages, would have been credited with four quarters of Social Security coverage.  In 2014, it takes $1,200 of Social Security covered wages to earn one quarter.

            For those people fully insured for Social Security retirement, benefits are available—at a permanently reduced rate—beginning at age 62.  Traditionally, full retirement benefits have been available for Social Security retirees who waited until age 65 to begin their benefits.  However, the “full retirement age” has been increased, based on the retiree’s year of birth, as shown by the table below:

Birth Date

Full Retirement Age

Before 1/2/1938

65 years

1/2/1938 – 1/1/1939

65 years and 2 months

1/2/1939 – 1/1/1940

65 years and 4 months

1/2/1940 – 1/1/1941

65 years and 6 months

1/2/1941 – 1/1/1942

65 years and 8 months

1/2/1942 – 1/1/1943

65 years and 10 months

1/2/1943 – 1/1/1955

66 years

1/2/1955 – 1/1/1956

66 years and 2 months

1/2/1956 – 1/1/1957

66 years and 4 months

1/2/1957 – 1/1/1958

66 years and 6 months

1/2/1958 – 1/1/1959

66 years and 8 months

1/2/1959 – 1/1/1960

66 years and 10 months

1/2/1960 and later

67 years

            For workers who take early Social Security benefits (before full retirement age), but continue to work, there may be a penalty.  Every two dollars they earn above a certain amount ($15,480 in 2014) will cause their Social Security benefit to be reduced by one dollar.  However, during the twelve months just prior to reaching full retirement age, this threshold amount is higher ($41,400 in 2014) and the penalty is less (one dollar of Social Security will be forfeited for every three dollars earned above this threshold).  After full retirement age, anyone may earn wages in any amount without any forfeiture of Social Security retirement benefits.

            However, no matter when a person collects Social Security benefits, a portion of those benefits may be subject to income taxation whenever the Social Security recipient’s other income (from wages and other sources) exceeds certain amounts: $25,000 for single Social Security recipients; $32,000 for married Social Security recipients.

Disability

            A worker who becomes disabled prior to full retirement age may be eligible for Social Security Disability Income benefits.  In order to qualify, the disability must be severe enough to prevent the worker from working in any form of “substantial gainful employment” for at least 12 months.

            The worker must also have attained Social Security disability insurance status.  Although there are some exceptions, in order to be insured for receipt of disability benefits, the worker must have at least forty quarters of Social Security work coverage, and at least twenty of those quarters must have occurred during the ten years just prior to becoming disabled.

Coverage of Family Members

            The spouse, children, divorced or widowed spouse, disabled or surviving children, and (in some cases) surviving parents of a worker or deceased worker may also be eligible for Social Security.  The rules vary depending on which family member is involved and whether the worker has or had attained retirement or disability status.

            For example, the spouse of a retired worker is entitled to a benefit of half of the worker’s full retirement benefit if the spouse waits until his or her full retirement age to collect it.  However, if the spouse has his or her own work record that would entitle him or her to a greater benefit, the spouse would receive that higher benefit instead.  When the worker dies, if the spouse survives, then the spouse’s benefit is stepped up to the full amount of the worker’s benefit, unless (of course) the spouse is entitled to an even higher benefit based on his or her own work record.

            An un-remarried divorced spouse of a worker may also be entitled to Social Security benefits—based on the work record of the worker—if the marriage lasted at least ten years.  The rules that pertain to when and how much the divorced spouse may collect, as well as the rules that pertain to the eligibility of other family members, are available from the Social Security Administration.

Contacting the Social Security Administration

            To apply for Social Security benefits, or to contact the Social Security Administration for any other reason, you may call the agency’s national toll-free phone number: 800-772-1213, or visit a local office.  There is a local office at Suite 200, 920 West Basin Road, New Castle, Delaware 19720.  The phone number is 866-667-7221 (TTY 800-325-0778). You may also apply online for Social Security retirement benefits, and visit the Social Security Administration for information, at www.socialsecurity.gov.

Railroad Retirement Benefits

            The Railroad Retirement Board pays benefits to former railroad employees and their families that are similar to the retirement and disability benefits payable under the Social Security system.  The amount of Railroad Retirement benefits is based on the railroad worker’s contributions from covered wages.  To be eligible, the worker must have had at least 10 years of railway employment service.  If the worker does not meet the 10 year requirement, his or her credited years of service are transferred to the Social Security Administration and can be counted toward Social Security benefits.  For workers who have 10 or more years of railway service it is also possible to collect both Railroad Retirement and Social Security benefits.  When that is the case, the entire benefit is payable by the Railroad Retirement Board.

            You can contact the Railroad Retirement Board via a toll-free helpline at 877-772-5772.  Applications and other information are obtained from the agency’s field offices.  The nearest field offices to Delaware are located in Philadelphia (serves New Castle County) and Baltimore (serves Kent and Sussex Counties).  You can also visit the agency’s web site at www.rrb.gov.

Supplemental Security Income

            Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a program based on need.  It is available to those who are over 65, blind or disabled and who have little income and few resources.  Effective January 1, 2014 the maximum SSI payment is $721/month for individuals and $1,082/month for couples.  Any individual or couple with countable income above these amounts would not be eligible for SSI.

            Under current law an individual is not eligible for SSI if countable resources exceed $2,000 in value.  A married couple cannot have countable resources which exceed $3,000.  Among resources which are not counted are the applicant’s home; household goods and personal effects up to $2,000; a vehicle with market value of $4,500 or less, or which is used for employment or to obtain medical treatment or which is equipped for a person with a disability; insurance policies with no cash surrender value or face value not exceeding $1,500; burial plans not exceeding $1,500; and property essential for self-support.

            Countable income is determined in a complex manner and may be treated differently depending on whether it is considered “earned” (like wages), “unearned” (like Social Security, interest and dividends), or “in kind” (like room and board in a relative’s home).

            Application for SSI is made at the local Social Security office.  You may apply by mail, but fewer problems occur if you apply in person.  You must establish proof of age, blindness or disability, and provide proof of income, assets and living arrangements.  After you start receiving SSI, changes in your income, etc., may affect your eligibility and you may wish to consult an attorney.

            Once a person living in Delaware is granted SSI benefits he/she is also eligible for Medicaid.  Anyone on SSI is also required to report any changes in income, assets or living arrangements to the Social Security Administration.

Food Stamp Program (SNAP)

            The food stamp program is provided to help low income people buy food.  It is free of charge to households based upon income and resources qualifications.  A household may be one person or a group of people who buy food and prepare meals together.

            In 2008, the official name of the program changed to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).  In 2009, the program switched from using paper stamps or coupons to an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card that is used like an ATM card and accepted at most grocery stores.  In Delaware this is called the Delaware Food First card.

            Eligibility for this service is based on factors such as who lives and eats together as well as relationships in the home and income.  All children under the age of 22 years old who live with their parents must apply with their parents.  You must be a U.S. Citizen or an eligible alien to qualify.  Individuals who receive Temporary Aid to Needy Families, General Assistance or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) do not need to meet an income test in order to receive Food Stamps.  The maximum monthly income limit for most other people is set at 130% of the Federal Poverty Level ($1,264 for an individual and $1,704 for a couple in 2014).  There is no resource test in Delaware.

            Effective November 1, 2013, SNAP benefits decreased due to the expiration of Federal funding that had been put in place, in 2009, as part of economic recovery legislation.  This cut is likely to remain in place for the remainder of the Federal government’s fiscal year (September 30, 2014).  The following chart illustrates the sizes of these cuts for each household size.

Maximum Food Stamp Allotments after ARRA sunset
November 1, 2013 – September 30, 2014


Household Size

Old
Amount 10/2013

New Amount
11/2013

1

$200

$189

2

$367

$347

3

$526

$497

4

$668

$632

5

$793

$750

6

$952

$900

7

$1,052

$995

8

$1,202

$1,137

Each Additional Member

$150

$142

 

            At the time of this writing (early 2014) potential additional cuts in SNAP benefits were being debated in Congress, so that further decreases in the above dollar allotments may occur.

            In Delaware, SNAP benefits are made available during a 16-day period each month, based on the first letter of the recipient’s last name.  So, at the beginning of 2014, recipients whose last names began with “A” would have their monthly benefits available on the 2nd of the month; recipients whose last names began with “X,” “Y,” and “Z” could access their benefits on the 17th.  Beginning in March 2014, however, this 16-day cycle will change to a 22-day cycle.

            You can apply for SNAP benefits by completing an application form at a local benefits office. For locations and other information call 800-372-2022 or 302-255-9500 or 211.  Delawareans may also apply online at https://assist.dhss.delaware.gov.

Veterans’ Pensions

            The Department of Veterans Affairs has a pension program that pays monthly income to veterans and widow(er)s of veterans who are either totally and permanently disabled, or 65 years of age and older, and who demonstrate financial hardship.  Income from a Veterans pension is often used to help the veteran or the widow(er) pay for long-term care or other medical expenses.

            In order to qualify for this pension program, the veteran must have been in active duty in the United States armed forces for at least 90 days, at least one of those days must have been during an official period of wartime, and the veteran must have obtained a form of discharge that was not dishonorable.  In order to show the requisite financial hardship the veteran or widow(er) must have income and resources below certain limits.

            Generally, countable resources below $80,000 will qualify.  The primary residence, one automobile and certain other forms of property will not count toward the $80,000 limit.  The threshold for income eligibility is on a sliding scale, based upon the level of disability that the veteran or widow(er) has and on the number of dependents the veteran or widow(er) has.  The income threshold is also calculated by subtracting the person’s medical and other allowable deductions from income.

            For example, a veteran who is so disabled that he or she needs the highest level of care (a so-called “aid and attendance” rating), and has one dependent (a spouse, for example) could qualify for a Veterans pension if his or her countable assets were below $80,000 and if the income of the veteran and spouse (after medical and other allowable deductions) were below $24,652 per year ($2,054 per month) in 2013.  If the allowable deductions completely offset income—so that countable income were 0—then this veteran could qualify for the highest pension amount available in 2013: $2,054 per month.

            It is important to also understand that the veteran’s or the widow(er)’s disability need not stem from his or her service in the armed forces.  It does not have to be a service-connected disability.

            The Veterans Administration does have other programs that pay income, or provide health care, to veterans and their families based on injuries that the veteran suffered while in service, or are otherwise connected to their service.  These service-connected disability programs generally do not require a showing of financial hardship.

            For information and assistance in filing an application for Veterans’ benefits, you may call 800-827-1000 or visit the Department of Veterans Affairs website at www.va.gov.  Also information on Delaware Veterans Benefits is available at www.military.com/benefits/veteran-benefits/delaware-state-veterans-benefits.  Tricare, the veterans’ health-care benefit, is discussed under the Supplemental Insurance Section of the Medicare discussion below.