If you live in Puerto Rico, your access to supplemental financial support from the Social Security Administration remains limited. A recent 8-1 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court continues to deny federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) for Puerto Rican residents who are blind, disabled, or older than 65. The ruling means that Puerto Ricans keep getting the supplemental income they have been eligible for the past 50 years.
The decision doesn’t affect Puerto Ricans applying for or already on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). SSDI pays benefits to people who meet work requirements and pay Social Security taxes on their income. Often called payroll taxes, these assessments are deducted from your paycheck (look for the FICA line item on your pay stub). Learn more about applying for SSDI benefits.
Why Aren’t Puerto Ricans Eligible for SSI Income?
Congress established the SSI program in 1972 to provide critical financial support for Americans with limited income and resources. When Congress created the program, it intentionally excluded Puerto Rico. The reason? The SSI benefits are funded by general revenues raised largely through personal income taxes — and Puerto Ricans don’t pay those.
To provide at least some assistance to Puerto Ricans, Congress created the Aid to the Aged, Blind and Disabled program, which offers similar benefits with less federal funding. Under the program, blind and disabled residents of Puerto Rico receive an average of $75 a month. By contrast, SSI benefits are much higher, averaging $590 each month. Besides keeping the financial support low, the decision could make it harder to access health insurance through Medicaid. People receiving SSI income are frequently automatically qualified for Medicaid coverage.
What Did the SSI Income Lawsuit Decide?
The lawsuit challenged the exclusion, asserting that SSI income is constitutionally guaranteed to all U.S. citizens. (Residents of all U.S. Territories are citizens.) The case wanted to make Puerto Rican residents eligible for SSI instead of the AABD benefits. And, in fact, lower courts had decided that they were. The Supreme Court, however, overturned those rulings.
The decision, written by Justice Brett Kavanaugh, states that “the fact that residents of Puerto Rico are typically exempt from most federal income, gift, estate, and excise taxes — supplies a rational basis for likewise distinguishing residents of Puerto Rico from residents of the States for purposes of the Supplemental Security Income benefits program.”
While the Court denied expanding the benefits, Congress could rewrite existing law to enable Puerto Ricans (and other Territorial residents) to access SSI income. The Biden Administration supports this change.
You May Qualify for Legal Assistance
Any U.S. state or Territory resident may benefit from legal assistance when applying for SSDI. Working with an experienced Social Security attorney nearly triples your chances of getting benefits. If the SSA doesn’t award you benefits and lump-sum backpay, then you owe your lawyer $0.
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Margot Lester is the CEO of The Word Factory, a B2B & B2C content marketing agency that provides services for Fortune 100 brands, healthtech companies and SaaS developers. An award-winning business and brand journalist, she writes for daily and weekly newspapers and business journals, national magazines, in-flight publications and leading websites. Margot is also an in-demand writing coach and organizational communications trainer, helping individuals and teams write more effectively. Twitter: @word_factory LinkedIn: linkedin.com/in/margotlester.