The safety net program Congress forgot
$794 per month. Imagine that as the only income you have to get by on.
That’s the harsh economic reality for millions of people with disabilities and seniors who rely on Supplemental Security Income, or SSI — a critical but paltry program administered by the Social Security Administration that’s been left to wither on the vine for decades.
As a former SSI beneficiary and a former legal aid lawyer who represented people wrongfully denied SSI benefits, we know firsthand how vital the income support that SSI provides can be. For many of the program’s roughly 8 million disabled and elderly beneficiaries, it can mean the difference between having a roof over your head and being out on the street. But we’ve also witnessed the human consequences of decades of federal neglect: SSI is now a program that consigns disabled people and seniors to abject poverty.
With a maximum monthly benefit of just $794, SSI tops out at about three-quarters of the federal poverty line. That isn’t enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment in any state in the U.S. — even if you spent 100 percent of monthly benefits on rent. The average rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment in 2020 was $1,063 per month — 128 percent of an SSI recipient’s monthly income.
Meanwhile, under current law, SSI beneficiaries are legally prohibited from having even modest emergency savings. The program’s long-outdated asset limits have been stuck at $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples for more than three decades. These rigid limits have lost immense purchasing power over the years. Had they been updated for inflation, they would be $9,500 and $12,675 respectively today. These counterproductive limits penalize savings and prevent beneficiaries from having even a modest rainy day fund for emergencies — such as a pandemic, statewide power grid failure, or forest fires — further entrenching poverty among seniors and disabled people.
Other outdated program rules push disabled people and seniors even deeper into poverty. SSI’s archaic income rules — which were put in place to allow beneficiaries to supplement their modest monthly benefits with additional income if they’re able to do so — have never been updated since the program’s establishment in 1974. These limits are stuck at $65 per month for earned income and $20 for “unearned” income. For very-low-income seniors and disabled people who receive a small amount from Social Security in addition to SSI, so-called “unearned” income includes their Social Security benefits. These paltry “income disregards” have lost virtually all of their value due to inflation over the years, shrinking already meager monthly benefits even further.
Further pushing already-struggling beneficiaries even deeper into poverty is a mean-spirited rule called “in-kind support and maintenance,” which targets beneficiaries who are lucky enough to receive help from loved ones with meeting their basic needs. A bag of groceries to help ensure you’ve got food to last through the month or a place to stay to help get you off the street can trigger a one-third reduction in SSI’s already sub-poverty-level benefits.
Along with economic security, marriage equality is out of reach for SSI beneficiaries too. The program’s rigid marriage penalties reduce benefits by one-quarter for SSI beneficiaries who marry another SSI beneficiary, and can lead to outright loss of benefits for those who marry someone not receiving SSI. Imagine not being able to marry the person you love for fear of losing survival income.
During the campaign, President Biden pledged to right these wrongs, committing that people with disabilities and seniors should never have to live in poverty in America. His historic disability policy platform spoke to each of these shameful policy failures. Biden committed to raise SSI benefits to the federal poverty level; update outdated asset limits and income rules; eliminate the cruel in-kind support and maintenance rule; and abolish SSI’s marriage penalties.
Now a coalition of House and Senate Democrats are urging Biden to make good on his promises to the 8 million disabled and elderly SSI beneficiaries. They are calling on him to include these long-overdue SSI updates in the American Family Plan, to finally bring the decades of shameful neglect of this critical program to an end.
This call comes on the heels of recent polling by Data for Progress, which confirms that expanding and strengthening SSI isn’t just the right thing to do — it’s also overwhelmingly popular among bipartisan majorities of American voters. Fully 77 percent of Americans want to see SSI’s sub-poverty-level benefits increased to at least the federal poverty level — which would amount to $1,073 in 2021. And 7 in 10 want to see SSI’s outdated asset limits raised or outright eliminated, to allow beneficiaries to save for the future.
These long-overdue reforms would significantly reduce needless and preventable poverty among people with disabilities and older adults. They would also disproportionately reduce poverty among beneficiaries of color. Updating SSI would go a long way towards finally bringing this crucial but long-forgotten component of our social safety net into the 21st century as policymakers work to “build back better.” And not a moment too soon, as COVID “long-haulers” begin to turn to SSI for critical income support.
SSI beneficiaries are by definition some of the lowest-income, most economically marginalized seniors and disabled people in the U.S. We have a once-in-a generation opportunity to expand the American safety net and ensure a fairer, more just society. The only thing that would be more shameful than how long federal policymakers have left this critical program and its beneficiaries to wither on the vine would be to leave it behind again now.
Rebecca Vallas is a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, a former public benefits lawyer, and host of the Off-Kilter podcast. Matthew Cortland is a senior fellow at Data For Progress, a chronically ill, disabled lawyer, and a former SSI beneficiary.
Copyright 2023 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.