Nonprofit volunteers hand out free food to man who uses wheelchair and other people in need on a sunny dayThe Social Security Administration (SSA) has announced a major change regarding how it calculates In-Kind Support and Maintenance (ISM) for recipients of Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Beginning later this year, the SSA will no longer count “free food” as income.

The final rule, which appeared in the Federal Register on March 27, 2024, also clarifies the SSA’s definition of “income.” The new rule will go into effect on September 30, 2024.

What Is Supplemental Security Income (SSI)?

This federal public assistance program offers financial support to people who are living on limited resources. To qualify for SSI, individuals must have income and assets that are under a certain monthly threshold that the SSA specifies. A person with a disability seeking SSI must also have an impairment that falls under the SSA’s strict definition of disability.

Eligible SSI recipients receive payments, up to a maximum of $943 per month as of 2024, that they can use to help pay for necessities. However, if at any point their income exceeds their monthly SSI award, they are at risk of seeing these benefits decline. In some cases, they could lose their ability to qualify for the program altogether.

Food and SSI Benefits

The SSA has traditionally included “free food” in its definition of income for SSI recipients. That is, it has seen “income” as “anything individuals receive in case or in-kind that they can use to meet their food and shelter needs.”

For example, if an SSI recipient lives in a household where someone else buys the groceries, the individual on SSI would have to report these “free food” expenses to the SSA. As a result, the SSA then decreases their monthly payout by a certain percentage.

The New Rule on In-Kind Support and Maintenance

After an initial proposal in early 2023, the SSA rule states in its final rule that it will now “no longer consider food expenses in [its] ISM calculations.” Instead, the rule explains, it will consider only shelter expenses. Shelter expenses refer to the following:

  • Room
  • Rent
  • Mortgage payments
  • Real property taxes
  • Heating fuel
  • Gas
  • Electricity
  • Water
  • Sewerage
  • Garbage collection services

“We historically included in-kind receipt of food in our ISM calculations because food assistance helps people meet their basic needs,” the final rule states. “However, the complexities of our current food ISM policies outweigh their utility.”

The change in policy will streamline the way that the SSA calculates ISM while making it easier for SSI recipients to adhere to the program rules. With this rule change, it adds, the SSA seeks to foster equity by not penalizing an “already vulnerable population when they receive food assistance.” The policy also will now treat food assistance from public sources and private sources in the same way.

Read the final rule in full.