–by Njeri Gathuka and Christopher Lewis, of Bread for the City’s Social Services Department

We’ve got good news for many Bread for the City clients: as of the new year, recipients of Social Security are receiving slightly larger checks each month. This is the Social Security Administration’s first “Cost of Living Adjustment” since 2009.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a common federal disability benefit that over five million Americans rely upon to survive. For recipients of SSI, this ‘COLA’ increase amounts to a $24 bump in monthly income, from $674 to $698 — a total increase of $288 for the year.

It’s a modest increase, but for our clients who receive Social Security benefits, it does make a difference.

“I have back pains, and used [SSI] to pay for a Tempur-Pedic bed I couldn’t afford,” said longtime client Robin Billings. “With the extra money, I can pay back the loan by the end of the summer,” she said.

Latanya, another BFC client, tells us that the increase “will probably go to my rent, because my rent is going to be going up,” she said. She hopes there is a little left over for herself. “I might save it for my birthday. I might take myself out. Probably buy me a new outfit, new shoes.”

For SSI recipients, small comforts like these are often simply unaffordable. Though SSI is designed for people whose disability prevents them from working, and in theory it should guarantee them enough income to cover the basic essentials of life, in reality the numbers don’t add up like that. With a yearly income of $8,088 — or $8,376 with the COLA increase — SSI recipients live well below the 2012 federal poverty guideline of $11,170 for a household of one.

Most SSI recipients depend upon places like Bread for the City to get enough food each month, and many resort to panhandling when their income runs out. Some who receive SSI are even homeless.

Life on $674 a month (now $698) can be a bit difficult to visualize. Let’s say that you are lucky enough to have subsidized housing (many people in need are stuck on waiting lists, with no light at the end of the tunnel) — that means that rent and utilities together will cost more than $200, leaving you with roughly $100 a week for expenses. That is all of your expenses: food, clothes, transportation, toiletries, laundry, etc.

With elaborate juggling, our clients stretch to make it work. But what if another expense comes up? New furniture, seasonal clothing, or a bus ticket to see family for the holidays? Such purchases are often out of reach. And if a sudden crisis comes up — like a housing inspection failure or the theft of a wallet — SSI recipients easily fall through the safety net.

A cost-of-living adjustment was certainly long overdue – and even this meager increase was threatened in the last round of Congressional budget deficit debates. But we should not let this 3.6% increase distract us from the true question: do these numbers really add up the way we expect them to?

*The Federal Poverty Line itself is widely disparaged for its inaccuracy as a true metric of poverty. Our friends at the Employment Justice Center measure actual poverty for DC residents at 300 percent of the federal rate—that’s $33,510 in yearly income for an individual.