Earlier this week, the Senate Finance Committee convened the first Senate hearing on the Supplemental Security Income program in nearly a quarter-century. Published below is Senior Fellow Rebecca Vallas’s testimony for the record on the urgent need to update this critical but long-forgotten program for low-income people with disabilities and seniors.
Chairman Brown and Ranking Member Young:
Thank you for convening this important and long-overdue hearing on improving and strengthening the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program—a critical part of our safety net for disabled and older Americans which has largely been forgotten by federal policymakers for decades. Indeed, the program has been forgotten for so long that even today’s hearing is historic: The most recent Senate hearing focused on SSI was nearly a quarter-century ago, in 1998—and the last time the Senate held a hearing examining SSI’s benefit adequacy and eligibility criteria was in 1987. Notably, that hearing was titled “The Forgotten Safety Net”—and that was more than three decades ago.
Woefully Outdated SSI Rules Now Trap Millions of Beneficiaries in Poverty
A core component of the nation’s Social Security system, SSI is nothing short of a lifeline for nearly 8 million of the nation’s poorest seniors and disabled people, including more than one million disabled children. When SSI was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, Congress made its intent clear: to assure “that the nation’s aged, blind, and disabled people would no longer have to subsist on below-poverty-level incomes.” Yet, because this critical program has been left to wither on the vine for over thirty years, SSI’s outdated program rules now assure the opposite.
As a former public benefits lawyer who represented low-income seniors and people with disabilities for several years prior to a career in public policy, I saw firsthand the human consequences of SSI’s decades of shameful erosion: millions of disabled people and seniors trapped in a sub-poverty-level existence by outdated program rules—many of which simply haven’t been adjusted for inflation due to Congress’s failure to act.
SSI’s meager monthly benefits top out at $794 per month in 2021—just three-quarters of the federal poverty line, and not enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment in any state in the United States, even if an individual spent 100 percent of monthly benefits on rent. Moreover, 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 serve to actively discourage work. Similarly, archaic “in-kind support and maintenance” penalties reduce benefits even further for beneficiaries who receive in-kind help from loved ones with survival basics such as food or shelter.
Meanwhile, SSI’s shamefully outdated asset limits—which haven’t been adjusted for inflation since 1989—penalize savings and prevent beneficiaries from having even modest emergency savings to weather an unexpected expense or economic shock. And the program’s rigid marriage penalties functionally put marriage equality out of reach for millions of SSI beneficiaries by forcing people to choose between subsistence income and marrying the person they love.
The SSI Restoration Act Would Dramatically Reduce Poverty and Hardship among SSI Beneficiaries
I am enormously grateful to Chairman Brown for his leadership in introducing the SSI Restoration Act of 2021. This important legislation—which has the support of twenty cosponsors in the Senate, including Senate Finance Chair Wyden, as well as more than 115 national advocacy organizations across the disability and aging communities—would finally reverse the decades of erosion brought about by SSI’s decades of neglect and restore the program to its original intent.
The SSI Restoration Act would increase monthly SSI benefits to the federal poverty level; update the program’s outdated asset limits for inflation, while, importantly, excluding retirement accounts from counting against SSI’s asset limits; update SSI’s income disregards for inflation; eliminate the program’s archaic in-kind support and maintenance penalties; and eliminate SSI’s marriage penalties, among other important technical changes. These updates would go a long way towards reducing needless poverty and hardship among disabled people and older adults, with disproportionate benefits for beneficiaries of color. According to recent analysis by the Urban Institute, these long-overdue reforms would bring 3.3 million people out of poverty and cut poverty among SSI beneficiaries in half.
Another long-needed update to the SSI program that is important to note, in addition to the SSI Restoration Act, is expanding eligibility to include residents of Puerto Rico, Guam, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa—who, under current law, are unjustly excluded from SSI eligibility despite being U.S. citizens.
Voters of All Political Stripes Want to See SSI Brought into the 21st Century
A recent poll conducted by Data for Progress and The Century Foundation underscores that updating and strengthening 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—including 90 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans—want to see SSI benefits increased to at least the federal poverty level.
Meanwhile, seventy-four percent of voters—including 84 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Republicans—want to see the program’s outdated asset limits raised to $10,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a couple.
The other major elements of the SSI Restoration Act are similarly popular: 77 percent of American voters want to see SSI’s outdated income disregards updated for inflation, including 86 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans; 72 percent of voters support eliminating in-kind support and maintenance penalties, including 83 percent of Democrats and 62 of Republicans; and 76 percent of voters support eliminating SSI’s marriage penalties, including 84 percent of Democrats and 69 percent of Republicans.
“Build Back Better” Legislation Offers a Once-in-a-Generation Opportunity to Update and Strengthen SSI
During the presidential campaign, President Biden pledged that seniors and disabled people should never have to live in poverty in America, and called for each of the above-listed SSI reforms as part of his disability plan. Inherent in this important pledge is a reminder that poverty in America is a policy choice—and Congress now has before it the opportunity to make a different choice for seniors and for people with disabilities, by finally bringing this vital component of the American safety net into the twenty-first century. As Congress works with the Biden–Harris administration to chart a course to economic recovery through upcoming “Build Back Better” legislation, the only thing that would be more shameful than how long SSI and its beneficiaries have already been forgotten would be to leave them behind once again.
While updating SSI was already long-overdue well before the COVID-19 pandemic began, the reforms proposed in the SSI Restoration Act are even more urgently needed now as we work to rebuild from a crisis that has hit disabled and elderly Americans especially hard. Strengthening SSI takes on even greater urgency as COVID-19 “long-haulers”—many of whom may no longer be able to support themselves through work—begin to turn to SSI and other fraying components of the disability safety net to stay afloat. 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.
Today’s historic hearing is a step in the right direction, such that the deep and enduring poverty faced by millions of long-forgotten SSI beneficiaries no longer remains in the shadows. Now, it’s on Congress to take long-overdue action to ensure the nearly 8 million disabled and older Americans who rely on SSI are finally able to live in dignity and meet their basic needs.
I appreciate your commitment to improving the lives of low-income disabled people and seniors by updating and strengthening this critical component of our Social Security system. Thank you for convening today’s important hearing and for the opportunity to submit testimony for the record.