For approximately 60% of SSI recipients, SSI is their only source of income, says Sen. Sherrod Brown, who has introduced legislation to update the “long-neglected” program. “SSI has been forgotten by Washington for years—I am pushing my colleagues to make sure that doesn’t happen again this time,” Brown told Disability Scoop in a recent interview. “I’m fighting to secure updates to the program, get this done. Fixing this antiquated program could change millions of lives and is our best opportunity to right the wrongs of decades of neglect.”
The fixes needed are many, starting with that grossly inadequate maximum benefit. Brown’s bill would raise it to 100% of the federal poverty level, which would mean a 31% increase in benefits, and index them to inflation. The second critical fix would update the asset cap for people on the program, which hasn’t been done since 1989. Right now, individuals can have just $2,000 in assets and couples $3,000. That’s all they can have in emergency savings or a retirement fund or risk being disqualified. Brown’s bill would increase those limits to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for couples.
Another outdated formula that has to go is the cap on outside income SSI beneficiaries can make—it hasn’t been increased since the program began in 1974. SSI participants can make just $65 in earned income and $20 in unearned income in a month. Every dollar they make over those amounts results in a dollar lost in benefits. They also can see benefits reduced if they receive “in-kind support” like help with groceries from family or friends or staying in a family member’s home for free. Brown’s bill would allow up to $399 per month in earned income and $123 per month in other income like pensions, Social Security, or veterans’ benefits. It would eliminate benefit reduction for in-kind help.
There’s also a marriage penalty for SSI participants. Benefits are cut by 25% for an SSI participant who marries someone else in the program—the maximum allowed for a couple receiving SSI is $14,293/year, which is just 50% more than what singles receive. It makes more financial sense for these couples—including older adults—to divorce than remain married. Someone on SSI who marries a person not receiving SSI could lose benefits entirely. Brown would eliminate these penalties and “increase the benefit for married couples to double the individual rate, to put marriage equality within reach for SSI beneficiaries.”
All of these critical and long-overdue updates would result in an increase of about $510 billion in SSI payments over the next 10 years, Social Security Administration Chief Actuary Stephen Goss estimated, which is significant but not bank-breaking by any means. “The amount of money it would take to just take these people out of poverty is very small as a share of the economy,” Karen E. Smith, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, told CNBC.
But it hasn’t become a key priority yet for those working on budget reconciliation. Budget Committee chair Sen. Bernie Sanders told HuffPost that it’s “actually something that we’re looking at,” but didn’t elaborate. Sen. Patty Murray, chair of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education said, “We have a lot of top priorities.”
“SSI has been forgotten by Washington for years,” Brown told HuffPost. “I am pushing my colleagues to make sure that doesn’t happen again this time. […] Right now is our best opportunity to right the wrongs of decades of neglect.”