When Supplemental Security Income, or SSI—a critical part of the nation’s safety net for disabled and older Americans—was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, Congress made its intent clear: to ensure “that the nation’s aged, blind, and disabled people would no longer have to subsist on below-poverty-level incomes.” Yet, because SSI has largely been forgotten by federal policymakers for decades, badly outdated eligibility rules now ensure the opposite, trapping millions of people with disabilities and seniors in deep and enduring poverty.
Offering hope that lawmakers in Congress may finally be taking notice, this past week, the Senate Finance Committee’s social security subcommittee convened the first Senate hearing on the SSI program in nearly a quarter-century, to explore “Policy Options for Improving SSI.” As Subcommittee Chair Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) noted upon gaveling in the hearing, SSI has been forgotten by lawmakers for so long that even this Senate hearing was historic. The most recent Senate hearing focused on SSI back was held in 1998—and the last time the Senate held a hearing to look at SSI’s benefit adequacy and eligibility criteria was in 1987. Tellingly, that 1987 hearing was titled “The Forgotten Safety Net”—and the program’s 1970s-era eligibility criteria have only continued to erode in the more than three decades since.
Prior to this week’s Senate hearing, Chairman Brown—the lead sponsor of the SSI Restoration Act, which would make long-overdue improvements like increasing monthly benefits to the federal poverty level and updating outdated income and asset limits for inflation—issued a call for people with lived experience of applying for or receiving SSI to share what updating the program’s punishing and outdated program rules would mean for them and their families.
Here are just a few of the responses.
During the presidential campaign, in promising to update SSI’s outdated program rules as part of his disability plan, President Biden pledged that seniors and disabled people should never have to live in poverty in America. As Chairman Brown said during last week’s hearing, “Poverty in America is a policy choice. And it’s up to this Committee and this Congress to finally make a different choice. There are millions of people with disabilities and seniors relying on us to act.” Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR) agreed, noting, “it’s not a close call—it’s time to update SSI.”
As Congress continues to work with the Biden–Harris administration to chart a course to economic recovery through upcoming “Build Back Better” reconciliation legislation, there is still time to include at least a down payment on the long-overdue SSI improvements in Chairman Brown’s SSI Restoration Act, which recent analysis by the Urban Institute found would bring 3.3 million people out of poverty and cut the poverty rate among SSI beneficiaries in half.
Following a pandemic that has hit disabled and older Americans harder than nearly anyone, 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.