Where a push to bring SSI benefits up to federal poverty level stands

Money in a special needs trust can cover supplemental needs not covered by Medicaid and SSI.

Uwe Umstaetter | Getty Images

Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., have touted a $3.5 trillion spending package aimed at helping to fight poverty.

Yet initial drafts have not included proposed reforms to enhance Supplemental Security Income — also known as SSI — that provides benefits to elderly, blind and disabled Americans.

Still, advocates have not given up hope that the changes will make it into the package as part of ongoing negotiations.

That includes Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, who in June led the reintroduction of a Senate proposal called the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act.

“SSI has been forgotten by Washington for years — I am pushing my colleagues to make sure that doesn’t happen again this time,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday. “I’m fighting to secure updates to the program, and this reconciliation bill is our chance to get this done.”

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Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., are among the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors. Another version of the proposal has also been introduced in the House of Representatives by Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz.

The goal is to bring aspects of SSI — some of which have not been changed since the 1980s — up to date.

In 2021, the maximum monthly SSI benefit is $794 per individual, or $1,191 per married couple where both individuals qualify for the program.

Those benefits are altered every year with the annual cost-of-living adjustment set by the Social Security Administration.

Still, those maximum benefit amounts are below the federal poverty level. The Senate bill calls for raising monthly benefits to 100% of the federal poverty level — which would result in a 31% increase — and indexing them to inflation.

In addition, it also calls for updating rules that have been in place for decades.

Today, individuals can only have $2,000 in assets in order to qualify for the program, while married couples can have up to $3,000. Those thresholds have not been updated since 1989.

The Senate bill calls for updating those caps to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for couples.

The bill also seeks to update SSI’s income rules, which have never been changed since the program was created in 1972. Currently, for every $2 someone earns over $65, they lose $1 of SSI benefits.

“The people who receive SSI essentially get a 50% tax on their income above $65,” said Stacy Braverman Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives.

Changing the math

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, speaks at a Washington, D.C., hearing on July 16, 2019.

Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The Senate proposal would raise those income thresholds, so individuals will be able to earn up to $399 per month through work and take in up to $123 per month through other government benefits or pension income without having their SSI checks reduced.

SSI beneficiaries would no longer be penalized for working or receiving gifts from friends or family. Moreover, married couples who are both on SSI would no longer take a benefit cut.

About 8 million disabled or elderly Americans currently receive SSI benefits, including more than 1 million disabled children.

“Fixing this antiquated program could change millions of lives and is our best opportunity to right the wrongs of decades of neglect,” Brown said.

The changes would come with higher costs due to the fact that the bill would not only increase payments to existing beneficiaries, but also make it so more people qualify for benefits, according to an analysis of the proposal done by Social Security Administration Chief Actuary Stephen Goss.

In total, it would result in an increase of about $510 billion in SSI payments from 2022 through 2030, Goss estimated.

“The amount of money it would take to just take these people out of poverty is very small as a share of the economy,” said Karen E. Smith, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute.

The result would be substantial improvements in well-being for a group of people who do not expect to work and support themselves, she said.

Democrats see an opening to get the changes passed through reconciliation, which would require a simple majority vote in the Senate. Notably, while SSI can be changed in that process, Title II programs like Social Security retirement, survivor or disability benefits cannot due to a restriction known as the Byrd Rule.

This is not a Democratic or Republican issue.

Stacy Braverman Cloyd

director of policy and administrative advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives

Notably, no Republicans have co-sponsored either the House or Senate versions of the bill. Still, advocates emphasize this is not a partisan fight.

“This is not a Democratic or Republican issue, but something that could benefit millions of Americans in every state and from every party,” Cloyd said.

Though SSI was not specifically named in the budget resolution proposal that was unveiled this week, there is a coalition of hundreds of disability and seniors’ groups continuing to fight for the change, in addition to a group of congressional Democrats, noted Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation.

“The only thing that would be more shameful than how long Congress has already forgotten about SSI would be to leave it behind yet again, when a rounding error in the reconciliation bill would change millions of disabled people’s and seniors’ lives,” Vallas said.

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