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Outdated SSI rules leave millions in poverty — the reconciliation package can change that

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If you are a person with disabilities or an older adult with little or no income and resources, the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is supposed to keep you out of poverty.  

But Congress has failed to update the program for decades, and participants are now trapped in a cycle of poverty due to its outdated and complex rules.

Roughly 8 million Americans rely on SSI, including 1 million children. The state of SSI should be a national scandal - and the human stakes of this crisis are painfully visible in New York, where more than 600,000 people depend on the program. Shockingly, in New York's 16th Congressional district, tens of thousands of recipients are expected to live on an average benefit of $575 per month. SSI recipients are disproportionately Black.

What this boils down to is that Americans with disabilities are being forced to navigate a society and a political system that does not fully value them as human beings. 

At Empire Justice Center, a statewide legal services organization that represents New Yorkers in their claims for SSI, advocates have seen the structural failures of the program up close. Take, for example, Debra, a typical client, who may need legal help because her claim was denied, despite significant cognitive limitations. The disability criteria for SSI are extremely difficult to meet. More than 60 percent of those who apply are denied at the initial level. 

Even if Debra's claim were approved, she would barely be able to survive on her SSI benefits. Because SSI has not kept up with the cost of living, the current maximum benefit is $794 monthly, three-quarters of the federal poverty level, but must cover all expenses, including rent, food, and other needs. In New York, a state supplemental payment can boost that to $881, but average rent in the New York City area ranges from $1,222 to $3,609.

Federal SSI benefits are often reduced even further, in part due to outdated rules about how income is counted. For example, if Debra's sister gives her a $100 Stop & Shop gift card for her birthday, the rules require that she report the gift to the Social Security Administration, reducing her next payment by $80. Another set of complex rules govern "in kind support" from friends or family. If a friend makes her dinner or gives her groceries, Debra's benefits could be cut by a third.

SSI resource limits have not been updated since 1989: a single beneficiary cannot accrue more than $2,000 in savings without risking losing their benefits. After receiving stimulus payments during the pandemic, SSI participants incurred penalties and required legal help.

The rules also punish married couples by enforcing lower benefit amounts and limits. If Debra were to marry another SSI recipient, she and her spouse would have to share a combined maximum benefit of $1,295 monthly and would lose their SSI if their bank accounts went above $3,000.  

The SSI Restoration Act introduced in Congress would make badly-needed upgrades to the outdated rules that are forcing people with disabilities and seniors to live in poverty. The bill would increase SSI benefits to 100 percent of the federal poverty line, raise the resource and income limits, and change the program's punitive requirements. 

There is a crucial opportunity to include these desperately needed reforms in the next recovery package. The Child Tax Credit, which just received a much-needed boost from the federal government that will help low-income parents across the country, has shown us how revolutionary this kind of assistance can be for the health and well-being of our society. Now is our moment to finally extend the same support to low-income people with disabilities and older Americans.  

As the Senate debates a bipartisan infrastructure deal this week and negotiations continue on a separate, $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that would transform the American economy, an urgent question remains unanswered: how will it help the millions of disabled and elderly Americans who, despite living in a country as wealthy as the United States, are unable to afford basic necessities? 

A recovery package that aims to "Build Back Better" cannot leave Debra and millions like her behind. We cannot wait another decade - we must improve and expand SSI immediately.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman, a former educator and middle school principal, represents New York's 16th District and serves as vice chair of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Emilia Sicilia is an attorney and a coordinator of the Disability Advocacy Program (DAP) in the Yonkers office of the Empire Justice Center, a statewide legal services organization. 

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