October 16, 2000
STATE RENTERS' REBATE PROGRAM AND DEPARTMENT OF SOCIAL SERVICES (DSS) PAYMENTS
By: Robin Cohen, Principal Analyst
You asked two questions about the impact of DSS assistance payments on the renters' rebate program. Specifically, you wanted to know (1) if DSS payments, including Food Stamps are deducted from the rebate amount and (2) how State Supplement benefits affect eligibility.
Renters' rebate benefits are generally not available to anyone who gets most forms of financial assistance that can be used to defray housing-related expenses. But PA 99-134 establishes in law an existing practice of allowing DSS cash assistance recipients to qualify for the rebate. DSS must deduct the amount of assistance received from the rebate amount. The state interprets this to apply only to State Supplement beneficiaries. Temporary Family Assistance (TFA) benefits, (which replaced the old Aid to Families with Dependent Children or AFDC program) are not deducted. This policy would seem to affect State Supplement recipients more than any other group of individuals who might qualify for the rebate.
Food Stamps are not cash assistance. They are not considered income for purposes of determining whether someone passes the program's income test, nor are they deducted from the rebate grant.
TREATMENT OF DSS PAYMENTS
When a local tax assessor determines eligibility for the renter's rebate, he looks at the applicant's income and compares it to the program's limits, which are currently $23,900 for single people and $29,300 for married couples. The current maximum rebates are $700 and $900, respectively.
With a few exceptions, state law prohibits anyone who receives federal, state, county, or municipal financial aid or subsidies that could be used to pay for rent, or electricity, gas, water, and fuel for their residence, from participating in the rebate program. People who receive benefits from Social Security, including Supplemental Security Income; emergency energy assistance; previous employment; veterans programs; and subsidized housing accommodations can qualify.
PA 99-134 added another exception to the general rule. It allows anyone receiving DSS cash assistance to qualify for the rebate. (In practice, the state was already allowing these people to qualify once they repaid DSS the amount of the cash assistance received during the applicable year through an interagency agreement between the Office of Policy and Management (OPM) and DSS.) Now, the amount of cash assistance is deducted from the rebate amount and if the difference is $10 or more, the applicant gets a rebate check. While the law provides for all cash assistance to be treated the same, in practice, it is not.
State Supplement benefits, which are available to people who receive SSI and certain other low-income individuals who are aged, blind, or disabled, are based in large part on their housing needs. For them, the amount received in annual State Supplement benefits is deducted from the rebate grant. This policy appears to benefit only those State Supplement recipients who receive relatively small amounts. For example, a single person who is otherwise eligible for the maximum rebate (currently $700) and is receiving more than $57 per month in State Supplement benefits would not qualify ($700-$690 ($57 X 12 months) = $10).
TFA benefits are not deducted from the rebate amount, thus families receiving those benefits can qualify for the full rebate, even though historically, this assistance has been used primarily to pay housing costs. Since the rebate program is available only to people who are elderly or disabled it would seem that only a small number of TFA families or “assistance units” are affected. Most caretaker relatives in that program are either not elderly or do not meet the required federal disability definition to qualify for the rebate. (We have asked DSS for, but have not received, the number of elderly and disabled caretaker relatives in TFA households.) Nevertheless, the reasons for not counting one type of cash assistance (TFA) as income and counting another (State Supplement) are not clear.
According to Jocelyn Watrous of DSS's Adult Services Division, Refugee Assistance payments could, theoretically, also be deducted, although the department's testimony on PA 99-134 mentioned only State Supplement payments as a possible deduction. Additionally, we spoke with one local assessor who said that the only cash assistance her office deducts is State Supplement payments.
Since only those people who receive a total of $690 or less in yearly State Supplement benefits can qualify for rebate assistance, it would seem that many elderly people and people with disabilities with low incomes who might otherwise qualify for the rebate program are being shut out, simply by virtue of receiving higher State Supplement benefits. According to Ron Madrid of OPM, the state agency that oversees the rebate program, this policy was originally an attempt to help those State Supplement recipients who were getting very small amounts of assistance who would experience a significant net gain by paying back their benefit.