Yesterday, Ohio Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Rob Portman (R-OH) introduced the bipartisan Savings Penalty Elimination Act, which would update asset limits in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program for the first time since 1989 and index them to inflation moving forward. Under current law, SSI beneficiaries are prohibited from having even modest emergency savings due to the program’s rigid asset limits, which have remained flat at $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple for more than three decades.  The bill is the first major bipartisan legislation to improve and update SSI introduced in nearly 40 years, and its introduction comes as momentum continues to grow on Capitol Hill—and within the business community—for making long-overdue updates to SSI. 

Following the bill’s introduction, TCF Senior Fellow Rebecca Vallas, who leads TCF’s disability economic justice team, released the following statement:

“A core component of the nation’s Social Security system, SSI is nothing short of a lifeline for nearly eight million of the nation’s poorest seniors and disabled people, including more than one million disabled children. But because this critical program has been left to wither on the vine due to nearly 40 years of shameful federal neglect, outdated program rules now consign older and disabled beneficiaries to deep and enduring poverty, even though the program was established to offer a pathway out of poverty. 

“SSI’s shamefully outdated asset limits—which have stayed stuck at $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple since 1989—penalize savings and prevent beneficiaries from having even a few thousand dollars in the bank for emergencies. Meanwhile, the program’s meager monthly benefits top out at $841 per month—just three-quarters of the federal poverty line. Income rules that have never been adjusted for inflation since the SSI program was signed into law nearly 50 years ago further entrench poverty among seniors and disabled people. And the program’s rigid marriage penalties put marriage equality out of reach for millions of SSI beneficiaries. 

“When a program as critical to the disability community as SSI is forgotten by federal policymakers for nearly 40 years, it should come as little surprise that just 1 in 3 disabled voters believe leaders in Washington care about people with disabilities, as new polling by The Century Foundation and Data for Progress finds. On the flip side, overwhelming majorities of voters of all political stripes agree it’s long past time to update SSI: 78 percent of voters overall support updating SSI’s asset limits, including 81 percent of Democrats, 78 percent of Independents, and 73 percent of Republicans. Updating SSI is increasingly garnering support from employers, as well, including leading business voices such as J.P. Morgan Chase, who supports this legislation and recently published a report finding that SSI’s outdated asset and income rules ‘create barriers to labor force participation and accumulating savings.’ 

“This historic bipartisan legislation represents a major step forward for SSI’s long-forgotten beneficiaries, and should be something everyone can get behind. While updating SSI was already long-overdue well before the COVID-19 pandemic, reforming the program’s woefully outdated rules is even more urgently needed now as we work to rebuild from a crisis that has hit disabled and elderly Americans especially hard—while spurring the largest influx of new entrants to the U.S. disability community in modern history. Congress should act swiftly to pass this important legislation so that disabled and older Americans are no longer barred from saving and planning for the future.”

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