As the Biden–Harris administration and Congress work to “build back better” in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, they have both an historic opportunity and an urgent imperative to strengthen key elements of the nation’s social safety net infrastructure. One long-forgotten component of the safety net that is urgently in need of an update is Supplemental Security Income, or SSI—which provides vital, but currently meager, income assistance to roughly eight million of the nation’s poorest people with disabilities and seniors.
Established in 1974, SSI provides monthly cash assistance to people with significant disabilities or who are 65 or older and who have very little in income and assets. The vast majority of SSI beneficiaries—more than 8 in 10—receive benefits on the basis of disability. As of March 2021, roughly 4.5 million SSI beneficiaries were non-elderly adults with disabilities, and just over one million were disabled children living in very low-income households. Roughly 2.2 million were very low-income seniors. In addition to rigid financial eligibility criteria, in order to receive SSI on the basis of disability, individuals must meet the same strict medical criteria used for Social Security Disability Insurance—and more than 6 in 10 applications for SSI disability benefits are denied. An important counterpart to Social Security, SSI is administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA).
The income support that SSI provides is nothing short of critical for millions of disabled and older Americans. But due to decades of federal neglect, SSI has been left to wither on the vine.
The income support that SSI provides is nothing short of critical for millions of disabled and older Americans. But due to decades of federal neglect, SSI has been left to wither on the vine—and the program now consigns millions of disabled people and older adults to deep and enduring poverty when it should instead give them a lifeline out of it. During the campaign, President Biden pledged that disabled people and seniors should never have to live in poverty in America, and committed to make several long-overdue improvements to SSI to ensure its beneficiaries are able to live in dignity. And now, a coalition of House and Senate Democrats, led by Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), are calling on the Biden–Harris administration and Congress to include these urgently needed reforms as part of the next economic recovery package.
What the SSI Program Needs to Enter the Twenty-First Century
While updating SSI was already long-overdue well before the COVID-19 pandemic began, these reforms are even more urgently needed now as we work to rebuild from a crisis that has hit disabled and elderly Americans especially hard. Adding further urgency to updating SSI, untold numbers of COVID-19 “long-haulers”—those who suffer symptoms long after the typical convalescence period, many of whom are no longer able to support themselves through work—are beginning to turn to SSI and other fraying components of the disability safety net to stay afloat.
Here are the five key reforms that President Biden pledged to make—each of which is critically needed to bring SSI into the twenty-first century.
1. Increase monthly benefits to at least the federal poverty level.
SSI’s maximum monthly benefit in 2021 is just $794 per month, equivalent to roughly three-quarters of the federal poverty level for an individual. As such, SSI benefits are not enough to protect disabled people and seniors from poverty, nor are they adequate to ensure that beneficiaries can meet even basic needs. By contrast, the average fair market rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment in 2020 was $1,063 per month—134 percent of an SSI beneficiary’s monthly benefits. President Biden committed to raise the monthly SSI benefit to 100 percent of the federal poverty level—which would push benefits up to $1,073 in 2021, an increase of more than one-third—and to index the federal benefit rate to inflation moving forward. While an income of 100 percent of the austere federal poverty level is hardly living high on the hog, this would represent a significant improvement in millions of disabled peoples’ and seniors’ current economic situation—and would mean that the federal government would no longer consign SSI beneficiaries to sub-poverty-level subsistence.
2. Raise SSI’s outdated asset limits.
Under current law, SSI beneficiaries are prohibited from having even modest emergency savings. The program’s asset limits—set at $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple—have not been updated since 1989, and have lost significant purchasing power over the more than three decades during which they’ve remained stuck at those levels. Had SSI’s asset limits been updated for inflation over the years, they would be $9,500 and $12,675, respectively, today. Even before the pandemic, a large and growing body of research confirmed that asset limits are counterproductive to economic stability, by penalizing savings, creating chilling effects on interacting with banks, and preventing people from having a rainy day fund to help them stay afloat financially in the event of an emergency or unexpected expense. As such, increasingly, the trend in recent years has been to eliminate asset limits in income assistance programs to better enable low-income individuals and families to be prepared for emergencies and to save for the future. President Biden pledged to raise SSI’s long-outdated asset limits and index them to inflation. An additional step that would support SSI beneficiaries in planning for the future would be excluding retirement accounts from SSI’s asset limits; and an even stronger step would be to eliminate SSI’s asset limits altogether—which would also relieve the Social Security Administration of a burdensome and complex policy to administer.
3. Update SSI’s income rules.
Another key element of the SSI program that has been in need of an update for decades is SSI’s income exclusions, which were put in place to allow beneficiaries who are able to do so to supplement their income. While SSA “disregards” the first $65 of earned income and the first $20 of “unearned” income per month, monthly SSI benefits are reduced for every dollar over those thresholds—each dollar in earned income after the first $65 reduces benefits by 50 cents, and benefits are reduced dollar for dollar of unearned income after the first $20. These income disregards have not been updated since the SSI program was enacted into law in 1972, and the amounts have lost nearly all of their value due to inflation over the years, shrinking already paltry monthly benefits even further. Low-income seniors and disabled people who receive a small amount in Social Security benefits in addition to SSI are among those most impacted, as Social Security benefits are considered “unearned” income. Meanwhile, the erosion of the earned income disregard creates a disincentive to work for beneficiaries whose conditions permit them to attempt to return to work. If these amounts had been updated for inflation, the earned income disregard would be $407 and the unearned disregard would be $125 today. In addition to being updated, they should be indexed to inflation moving forward.
4. Eliminate the “in-kind support and maintenance” rule.
A particularly draconian rule that pushes SSI beneficiaries even deeper into poverty is SSI’s “in-kind support and maintenance” rule—which targets beneficiaries who receive help from loved ones with meeting their basic needs. Due to this policy, an SSI beneficiary who is deemed to have received in-kind support—such as a bag of groceries to help them have enough food for the month, or a place to stay to ensure they have a roof over their head—can see already-sub-poverty-level benefits reduced by one-third. President Biden pledged to eliminate this archaic policy, which only serves to further entrench poverty among extremely poor disabled people and seniors.
5. Abolish marriage penalties.
It is not only economic security that is out of reach for SSI beneficiaries: marriage is also off the table, due to SSI’s current rules. The program’s harsh marriage penalties reduce monthly benefits by one-quarter for SSI beneficiaries who marry another SSI beneficiary—and can result in loss of benefits altogether for those who marry someone not receiving SSI. As a result, marriage equality is out of reach for millions of disabled people and older adults. President Biden committed to eliminating SSI’s marriage penalties to ensure beneficiaries are able to marry the person they love.
Americans Agree Across Party Lines: Updating and Expanding SSI Is Long Overdue
These long-overdue reforms would go a long way towards reducing needless poverty and hardship among disabled people and older adults, with disproportionate benefits for beneficiaries of color. Strengthening SSI takes on even greater urgency as COVID-19 long-haulers—many of whom are so-called “essential workers” exposed to the coronavirus on the job—begin to turn to the program for critical income assistance. What’s more, since SSI beneficiaries’ budgets are stretched incredibly thin, boosting SSI benefits would further promote economic recovery by putting more money in very low-income consumers’ pockets. Benefits are generally spent very quickly, pumping money back into the local economy.
A recent poll conducted by Data for Progress underscores that updating and expanding SSI is not just the right thing to do—it’s also overwhelmingly popular among voters of all political stripes. Seventy-seven percent of Americans want to see SSI benefits increased to at least the federal poverty level—and 7 in 10 want to see the program’s outdated asset limits raised. Eliminating SSI’s asset limits is virtually just as popular as raising them, at 67 percent support.
SSI beneficiaries are by definition some of the poorest, most economically marginalized disabled people and older adults in the United States. As the Biden–Harris administration works with Congress to chart a course to economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic, we cannot afford to leave them behind again.