This week, Off-Kilter’s taking a quick break from the ongoing series of conversations Rebecca’s been having with leaders around the limiting beliefs we as a collective must release and replace to pave the way for economic liberation, to bring you a discussion Rebecca had last week at a virtual event hosted by The Century Foundation and the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative to mark October 2022 as the fiftieth anniversary of Supplemental Security Income, or SSI—a long-forgotten and badly neglected component of our nation’s safety net.
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REBECCA VALLAS (HOST): Welcome to Off-Kilter, a podcast about the fight for economic liberation and what it will take to set us all free, powered by The Century Foundation. I’m Rebecca Vallas, and I’m a former legal aid lawyer turned policy advocate who works with public policy and law, as well as organizing, coalition building, and narrative as tools for building a more just society, one premised on collective consciousness of our common humanity and the inherent dignity and rights that come with being human. Every week I talk with visionary leaders working to reinvigorate our shared imagination and disrupt the off-kilter imbalance of power in the U.S. to build a society where everyone can thrive and experience the shared abundance we all deserve.
And this week, we’re taking a quick break from the ongoing series of conversations I’ve been having with leaders around the limiting beliefs we as a collective must release and replace to pave the way for economic liberation. And that’s to bring you a series of conversations I had last week at a virtual event hosted by The Century Foundation and the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative to mark the 50th anniversary of Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a long forgotten and badly neglected component of our nation’s safety net. Let’s take a listen. [upbeat music break]
PATRICE JETTER: Hi. My name is Patrice Jetter, and I’m 58 years old. SSI helped me a lot when I was living with my mom, and it helped us make sure that we had enough money for rent, for food, and for bills and what I needed. One of the issues that I have with SSI is that if I were to get married, I would lose my benefits. I’m in love with someone, and I wanna get married, but it’s not worth it if I’m gonna lose everything. SSI only gives a married couple $600 a month, which is nothing compared to what rent is. You would lose your Medicaid. You’re allowed to have $3,000 in the bank, but that’s not a lot either. That needs to be addressed so that people like myself can get married, take care of each other, and not worrying about have to be penalized because of who you love. Nobody should have to pay a penalty for that.
The other thing that’s hard with getting SSI is the assets limits. As a single person, I’m only allowed to have $2,000 in the bank. [van engine rumbles for a few moments] My van broke down again. I need to get myself a van. Most vans cost more than $2,000, especially if you want one when the engine is still running, or you’re gonna plan on pushing it like Fred Flintstone. A decent vehicle is gonna cost way more than $2,000, more like $20 or $30,000. How are you supposed to live if you’re very limited as to what you can have? I can’t even do a GoFundMe because a GoFundMe would put me over the asset limits, and I would lose my income. The asset limits need to be raised to a more realistic amount that’s updated with the times. The cost of living goes up year after year, but the asset limit does not. We need to raise the asset limit so that people like myself can have more to take care of what they need. So, stop punishing people with disabilities for wanting to live and have a life just like you. Thank you.
VALLAS: Hello and welcome to everyone out there for joining this morning and this afternoon’s event, depending on which coast you’re on. My name is Rebecca Vallas. I’m a senior fellow at The Century Foundation. I’m one of the co-directors of the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, and I’m the host of the Off-Kilter podcast. And I have the distinct honor and privilege of being your MC for today’s SSI at 50 event. I’m a white woman with brown, curly hair, some big honkin’ unicorn earrings, and a bunch of eclectic art behind me, and I’m wearing a black shirt.
“Stop punishing people for disabilities for wanting to have a life just like you.” Powerful words from Patrice, a former SSI beneficiary who’s working with The Arc of the United States and All Ages Productions on a forthcoming documentary on the SSI program. This October marks 50 years since SSI, Supplemental Security Income, was signed into law by President Nixon in 1972. Congress’s intent in establishing this program was to ensure that disabled and older adults would, “no longer have to subsist on below-poverty incomes.” Today, SSI provides critical income support to nearly eight million people with disabilities and older adults, including one million disabled children. Modest as benefits are, it was burned into my brain early on as a legal aid lawyer representing people wrongfully denied SSI how transformative the monthly income support from this program can be in a person’s life. And as we’ll hear in a bit, it can be the difference between having enough to eat and skipping meals to be able to afford the rent, being able to afford co-pays on needed prescriptions versus cutting pills in half, and for families with a disabled child, being able to care for and meet their child’s needs at home instead of in an isolating and dangerous institution.
But as we mark 50 years of this bedrock program, it’s a bittersweet anniversary to celebrate because SSI has been left to wither on the vine for nearly as long as it’s been around. As a result, as Patrice so powerfully described, while SSI provides vital income support for millions, key elements of the program’s eligibility criteria have become extraordinarily restrictive, punitive, counterproductive, and even outright [in]humane, for example, a $2,000 asset limit that hasn’t been updated even for inflation since 1984, the year I was born; income limits that have never been updated for inflation in 50 years; and marriage penalties that, as you heard from Patrice, keep people from marrying the person they love, a policy that’s especially sitting on my heart this year as I feel extraordinarily fortunate to be free to marry the person I love a great deal. Among the most important evolutions in our society’s treatment of disabled people over the past century is the movement towards deinstitutionalization: the large-scale freeing of people with disabilities from oppressive, isolating, and dangerous institutions, which today still warehouse far too many disabled and older adults because of how many people languish on waiting lists for Home and Community-Based Services.
But as we celebrate SSI’s 50th anniversary and all the good it’s done in so many people’s lives, it’s also time for us to finally acknowledge that in many ways, SSI has become a prison without walls for millions of disabled and older adults because of decades of federal neglect by policymakers. Outdated eligibility rules that beneficiaries must live inside in order to maintain survival income and health insurance have become a new kind of large-scale institutionalization that is invisibly keeping millions of people with disabilities and seniors not only from full participation in American society, but from living lives with full human dignity and access to the American Dream.
So, as we continue to live through a pandemic that is not over, how often I have poet and activist Sonya Renee Taylor’s words ringing in my ears. She writes, “We will not go back to normal. Normal never was. Our pre-corona existence was not normal other than that we normalized greed, inequity, exhaustion, depletion, extraction, disconnection, confusion, rage, hoarding, hate, and lack. We should not long to return, my friends. We are being given the opportunity to stitch a new garment, one that fits all of humanity and nature.” Brutal and lethal as the pandemic has been, as Sonya Renee Taylor beautifully notes, the pandemic has offered us an invitation for myriad paradigm shifts should we accept the invitation not to go back to a normal that never was, apart from the parade of social ills that it normalized. The COVID era has also been an invitation to remember our common humanity and to find new ways of living in connection with each other. Even the far-from-leftie Financial Times has issued similar calls to action, such as in an editorial early in the pandemic proclaiming, “Virus lays bare the frailty of the social contract. Radical reforms are required to build a society that works for all.”
So, as we collectively interrogate America’s social contract and who it is and isn’t working for today, I’ll invite you to ask yourself what kind of system would you design to be there for yourself, your family members, and your loved ones if you become or they become disabled? One that bars emergency savings, penalizes you for marrying the person you love, punishes you from getting help from loved ones, and doesn’t even bring you all the way up to the federal government’s similarly outdated poverty line? I suspect that’s not what many of us would design for ourselves or for people that we care about. But until we take action to reckon with how punitive and restrictive SSI’s antiquated eligibility rules have become, that is what we as a society are tacitly saying is just fine for eight million of our disabled and older neighbors.
Marking bittersweet anniversaries like this one is tough, and I’m actually getting emotional, even just saying those words. On the one hand, we need to celebrate, and SSI has done a great deal of good in its 50 years. But it’s also long past time for us to reckon honestly with where the program stands today and what must be done for SSI to not only live up to its legislative purpose but to treat the people it was put in place to help as fully human. So, to dig into the good, the bad, and the ugly of SSI at 50, as well as some of the historic bipartisan momentum for bringing SSI into the 21st century, we have a truly all-star lineup for you today, including current and former SSI beneficiaries, stakeholders across the political spectrum, policy experts, advocates, and some of the members of Congress who have been tirelessly fighting to bring SSI into the 21st century for years. We’re sad to miss two of our champions who wanted to be with us today, but who were unable because of scheduling conflicts and illness respectively. Senator Rob Portman from Ohio, who’s been working tirelessly with Senator Sherrod Brown to update SSI’s asset limits, which you just heard about from Patrice, and acting commissioner of the Social Security Administration, Kilolo Kijakazi, who’s been an incredible champion within the agency for racial equity and more.
A huge round of thanks before we get underway to everyone at The Century Foundation, the Disability Economic Justice Collaborative, and our many partners who made today’s event possible, with special thanks to The Arc, Justice in Aging, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, Social Security Works, the Center for American Progress’s Disability Justice Initiative, and Act TV, and especially to everyone behind the scenes helping to make today’s events run smoothly. And thanks to our interpreters as well. I invite you to join the conversation using #SSIAt50, which you can use to send in questions for our panelists, too. And now, without further ado, it’s my great pleasure to welcome two long-time SSI champions and dear friends onto the virtual stage to help us start by taking a look at SSI’s origins 50 years ago and how the program compares today.
So, I’ll welcome on to the virtual stage Kathleen Romig, director of social security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, and Tracey Gronniger, directing attorney for economic security at Justice in Aging. Kathleen, Tracey, thank you so much for being with us today and for everything you’ve both been doing for years to bring SSI into the 21st century. I’ll pause so each of you can do a visual description. Kathleen, do you wanna go first?
KATHLEEN ROMIG: Sure. I’m Kathleen Romig. I’m a blonde white woman wearing a aqua blazer in front of a bookcase.
TRACEY GRONNIGER: And I’m Tracey Gronniger. I am a Black woman with curly black hair, and I’m wearing a gray sweater over a dark kind of purple shirt. And I use she/her pronouns.
VALLAS: Wonderful. Thanks to both of you. And I can’t think of a better place to start than, frankly, the origins of SSI 50 years ago. Kathleen, to kick off today’s celebrations and discussions, roll back the clock for us. What’s the story behind the SSI program, how did it originate, and what was its original purpose 50 years ago? We’ve heard just a little bit about that so far, but how does SSI fit into the broader Social Security system that everyone generally knows so much better?
ROMIG: Sure. Well, before there was SSI, there was a whole patchwork of programs meant to give really subsistence benefits to older people and people with disabilities. They really varied by state how generous they were and how many people were eligible, and they really were not sufficient in almost every instance. And so, in 1972, federal policymakers decided that for the 50 states, DC, and one territory, they would bring them into a new system called the Supplemental Security Income Program, and the eligibility and benefits would be standard across the country. So, as you mentioned at the outset of the program, Rebecca, the purpose of it, as federal policymakers said at the time, was to provide an assurance that the nation’s aged, blind, and disabled people would no longer have to subsist on below-poverty level incomes. That goal has really never been achieved. It’s certainly not achieved now. And as far as how it fits with the Social Security program, also known as the Old Age Survivors and Disability Insurance Program, as the name sort of suggests, SSI is a supplement to that. So, the SSI was meant to build on Social Security, in the words of the lawmakers, and it’s meant to supplement the benefits and give people with low Social Security benefits or no Social Security benefits a boost so that they are not living below poverty.
VALLAS: Thank you so much, Kathleen. It’s a great place to start. And Tracey, I’m gonna bring you in next to ask you to speak a little bit about in present day, how many people are helped by SSI, who they are, and what do we know about SSI’s impact on poverty nationally among disabled people and seniors? Talk a little bit about who it helps and what we need to know about who qualifies.
GRONNIGER: Yeah. So, there are about eight million people who are receiving SSI. And as you mentioned before, these people are depending on this income to provide shelter, to provide food, to provide basic needs, but they’re actually not receiving enough to help them have the economic security that would be necessary for people to live in dignity. And for older adults, which is the population that I serve at Justice in Aging, this is very much true for people who have probably had a long history of dealing with not having regular jobs, not getting Social Security benefits that are high enough to reach or go above the poverty level. And so, they’re coming into older age receiving below poverty-level income, and as Kathleen mentioned, if they have some Social Security, it’s still not enough to be able to survive. And so, one of the unfortunate parts of SSI is that for older adults who do receive Social Security benefits, their SSI is reduced. And so, to the extent that SSI could be a supplement that gives a boost to people who don’t receive enough Social Security income, it’s actually pulling them down and keeping them at below-poverty level incomes.
For people of color, this is, I think, a racial justice issue as well. We see people who historically have faced a lot of discrimination, maybe have had higher unemployment levels. Within the communities of color, the poverty rate is about twice as high as it is for white older adults. And so, SSI is a really important program to provide income to people who have historically had to face discrimination that would make it more difficult for them to come into retirement with enough income to survive and enough retirement security to be able to meet their needs. And so, I think that that’s another reason that SSI is really important.
And then the last thing I’ll say is that SSI is also very important for women who also historically provide a lot of caregiving services, who may have had more flexible jobs that then reduce their Social Security income later on in retirement and are then more likely to live in poverty and have to use SSI to meet their needs in terms of income, but are then also left with these really low levels of benefits and the inability, as the previous speaker said, the inability to save enough. And it’s really difficult. So, the program is really important to a lot of different groups of people who really need this income in order to survive.
VALLAS: And Kathleen, bringing you back in as well here, talk a little bit about some of the basics. For folks who might not be familiar with SSI, maybe they’ve heard of Social Security, maybe they’re familiar with Social Security, but they’re going, “Oh, well, but who is it that gets this SSI benefit,” talk a little bit about some of the basic overview of who qualifies and how much benefits are and what folks might need to know if they’re new to getting up to speed on what SSI is.
ROMIG: Sure. SSI in some ways is sort of like three programs in one. There are benefits for children with disabilities, and that’s about one million, or one in eight, beneficiaries are children. There are benefits for adults with disabilities. And there are benefits for elderly people, and that’s about three in 10 of the beneficiaries. And what kind of unites all three of these groups as far as eligibility is you have to have very low income and very low assets to qualify. And so, the assets, as Patrice mentioned at the top, you can only have $2,000 in the bank or anywhere else, for that matter—under the mattress, in a retirement savings account, anywhere—$2,000 total. Or if you’re married, or if you’re in a two-parent household and you have a child, you can only have $3,000. So, we’re talking very, very basically, no savings and also very low income. And the disability criteria for children and for adults are very strict as well, that you must have a disability that prevents you from making lower than the poverty-level wage, a subsistence wage. And the disability must last at least 12 months or result in death. And most applicants don’t meet this very strict disability criteria because it is that stringent.
VALLAS: So, in the final couple of minutes that we have here with the two of you, I’m gonna ask you each the same question just to round out this first panel. I’m gonna ask, if we’re giving SSI a report card as it turns 50, what grade are we giving it? How is it doing at meeting its purpose of ensuring that seniors and people with disabilities don’t subsist on below-poverty incomes? I asked that question, I think, knowing how you both are gonna answer. But Tracey, I’ll let you go first, and then Kathleen, you’ll get the last word.
GRONNIGER: I hate to give a failing grade to anyone. And so, I think I can’t go lower than a C-, although D+ feels appropriate. I don’t wanna say that SSI isn’t really important, and it’s not providing important income to people. But in terms of meeting its goals, it’s not there, and it really does need updating, and it needs to be improved so that it can provide the economic assistance that people need and that it’s supposed to.
ROMIG: I guess I’m much tougher grader [laughing] than Tracey.
GRONNIGER: I think you are, Kathleen. I’m pretty sure. [laughs]
ROMIG: But looking at the congressional intent to keep seniors and people with disabilities out of poverty, it’s failing. Half of SSI beneficiaries are in poverty. I will say on the positive side, I think one sometimes overlooked aspect of SSI is that in almost every state, SSI eligibility also confers Medicaid eligibility, and that has been incredibly valuable to seniors and people with disabilities who get SSI benefits as Medicaid provides some really valuable things that you really can’t get through other kinds of insurance, including private health insurance like the long-term services and supports that many people need to live outside of institutions, many disabled people need to live outside of institutions. So, I will say they get, let’s say, SSI gets a little extra credit for conferring that Medicaid eligibility on people, but otherwise, they really need to go back, study a bit harder, and do better so that they can meet that fundamental goal of keeping people out of poverty.
VALLAS: Thanks so much to you both. And, of course, as a throughline of today’s conversation, the thing it feels like it’s important to say again and again is that all of these things are choices. It doesn’t have to be a failing grade that SSI gets. And it’s up to our lawmakers in Congress, some of whom we’re gonna be hearing from in just a bit, to make different choices, including remembering that this program exists and just updating its basic rules for inflation. We’ll hear some more about that shortly. But I just wanna say thank you to both of you, Kathleen and Tracey, and it’s a pleasure to be in this fight with you both.
So, I’ll remind folks at this moment, you can join the conversation using #SSIAt50. And next up, we’re gonna hear from another incredible disability rights and justice advocate who is also a former SSI beneficiary herself and someone I’m honored to count a longtime dear friend, Maria Town. She’s president of the American Association of People with Disabilities. And we’ll go to her remarks next.
MARIA TOWN: Hello. My name is Maria Town. My pronouns are she/her/hers, and I’m a white woman with long brown hair. I’m wearing a red top, red lipstick, and some pearls. I serve as the president and CEO of the American Association of People with Disabilities. And I want to thank all of the people and organizations who’ve come together today to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Supplemental Security Income Program. SSI is a vital program for disabled people and older adults, and I speak from experience. I have lived more of my life as a recipient of SSI than not. For me, SSI I made it possible to ensure that I had food on the table and that I had access to other benefits like home health aides that helped support my family as I recovered from multiple surgeries as a child. It helped me make sure that as I navigated a job market that wasn’t accessible to me, I still had some income as a young adult. And in my opinion, SSI in many ways provided the foundation for what has been possible for me today and what has become a very meaningful career.
It was pretty early in my career when I realized that my story of being on SSI and transitioning off was the exception when it should be the rule. And it’s one of the things that motivates my work today as a disability advocate and the head of AAPD. Far too often disabled people and older adults who receive SSI are placed in a kind of catch 22. Get the benefits you need to survive instead of pursuing the job you love. Get the benefits you need to survive instead of pursuing the love of your life. Get the benefits you need to survive instead of determining your future on your terms.
In the past 50 years, we have seen the landscape of disability civil rights shift drastically. Disabled children now know that they can go to school along with their peers and be included. Disabled people expect public accommodations. We expect accessible media and communications. And yet, programs like SSI have not caught up. For anniversaries like these, I think of them as moments to reflect and recommit. And that’s what I want to do tonight, to reflect on the legacy of SSI and all that has been created because of it, but also to recommit to modernizing this program to ensure that disabled people will no longer be forced into drastic poverty in order to get these benefits, that we will no longer have to wait years in appeals, that disabled people will not have to die waiting for benefits determinations. So, with that, I again will say thank you to everyone for being here today, and I look forward to working with all of you in our fight to modernize SSI and make sure it can benefit as many people as possible. Thank you.
VALLAS: Thanks so much, Maria. And reflect and recommit really do feel like the watchwords for this anniversary. Next up, it is my pleasure to welcome onto the virtual stage two more phenomenal advocates fighting to update SSI for people with disabilities and for seniors. They’re also dear friends. Mia Ives-Rublee is the director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, and Tom Nichols is government affairs director at AARP. Tom and [Mia], so glad to have you here. I’m just gonna do another quick plug. As a reminder, you can join the conversation using #SSIAt50. And Mia, I’ll hand it to you first to do a visual description, and then Tom can as well, and we’ll get into it.
MIA IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah, hi. My name is Mia Ives-Rublee. I am a Asian-American woman who has very short black hair and also has a blouse that has pink flowers and a blue background. And the background of the screen is kind of blue now.
VALLAS: And Tom, you’ll get to go next.
TOM NICHOLS: Hi, everyone. I’m Tom Nichols. I am a white man wearing a blue blazer and white shirt. I’ve got glasses and a beard and far less hair than I used to have.
VALLAS: Ah! I can validate that. But also, [laughs] I think that’s true of a lot of us after years in this SSI fight.
Mia, I’m gonna start with you. As we turn to this next portion of the conversation to really talk about how some of these outdated rules that we’ve been hearing about today are playing out in people’s lives, we just heard from Maria Town, a friend of both yours and mine about her own experience with SSI. And Mia, like Maria, you share policy and advocacy as well as lived experience with SSI. So, as we mark 50 years of this program, talk a little bit about what SSI means to the disability community and what it meant to you.
IVES-RUBLEE: Aw, man, I just wanna echo so much of what Maria was talking about. But SSI has been one of the most important anti-poverty programs in the U.S. history of providing disabled people with cash funds to become more independent. It provides real money to allow disabled people to make their own choices, like where they wanna live, where they wanna eat, etc. Disabled people continuously, unfortunately, fall behind in employment. Currently, their unemployment rate is almost three times that of non-disabled workers. Due to unaccessible workplaces, overt and covert discrimination, and lack of accommodations, disabled people have significant difficulties obtaining and maintaining employment. And even when they are employed, disabled people earn about 74 cents to every dollar that non-disabled workers earn. Some even earn sub-minimum wages, which average around $3.34 per hour.
For me, SSI was essential, particularly when I graduated from high school, and it was the opportunity where I had to decide what I was going to do next. It provided funds to help me stabilize my life while I was able to obtain post-secondary education. SSI helped pay for my housing, it helped pay for food, giving me a chance to be independent from my family and make my own choices. It also gave me a grace period when I decided to start my own career as a Vocational Rehabilitation counselor. It helped pay for a lot of the same things that I was talking about—my rent, my food, etc.—so that I could start a career. So, it was essential in my life, and it’s essential for so many other disabled people.
VALLAS: And Tom, turning to you next, AARP is probably one of the most well-known advocacy organizations in the country. It represents the interests of seniors, and that’s what you fight to do every single day. Talk a little bit about what SSI means to seniors. Why is AARP such a strong advocate for protecting and strengthening the SSI program?
NICHOLS: Sure. Thanks so much, Rebecca. And let me say that it’s so amazing to hear Mia talk about her experiences with SSI. And I think that much like what she talked about, I think it’s very difficult to overstate how much SSI means to older folks. There’s 2.3 million Americans who are over the age of 65 who currently rely on SSI as a program of last resort for their financial assistance. I’d also like to add that AARP represents Americans over the age of 50. And so, in addition to seniors, there’s certainly a portion of the 4.3 million Americans with disabilities between the ages of 18 and 64 who are on SSI and rely on SSI and also over the age of 50, of course, who rely on it for these vital benefits. So, like I said, I think for these millions of Americans, I’m certain that SSI is absolutely crucial to them. Again, we’re talking about a program that provides a bare minimum of financial support to older Americans and those with disabilities who are most in need with very low incomes and very limited resources so they can afford very basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter. And again, I don’t think we can overstate how much SSI means to these folks.
And I think that that also goes to the question of why AARP is such a strong advocate for protecting and strengthening the SSI program. Again, we’re talking about helping those who are most in need, and that goes right to the heart of what AARP was founded on. AARP was born out of an encounter that our founder, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, had with a fellow retired teacher over 75 years ago who was living in poverty in a chicken coop. And Dr. Andrus knew then that older Americans who were most in need needed an advocate, and that advocate, or I’m sorry, that advocacy continues to this day.
VALLAS: I love that story. And Mia, I’m gonna bring you back in because as we are celebrating the program’s significance today, a throughline of our conversations throughout this whole program is how outdated the program’s eligibility rules have become over time. So, we can’t overstate how important this program is to people, but we also can’t stop there as we reflect on 50 years of SSI. So, starting with you, Mia, and then Tom, I’ll bring you in on this as well. Mia, talk a little bit about how some of the outdated rules we’ve been hearing about today like asset limits and income limits and marriage penalties are playing out in disabled people’s lives, and in particular, how they’re counterproductive to goals like economic security. And Tom, I know you’ll talk a little bit about the retirement crisis, but first to you, Mia, with that question. How are these rules and their outdated, antiquated, not even up to date for inflation reality actually showing up on the ground?
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah. As Kathleen and Tracey stated, the program has really just sort of withered on the vine and is now not doing what it was originally intended to do. The maximum current payment right now is $841 for an individual and $1,261 for a couple. Current poverty, federal poverty line is $1,132.50. That actually won’t even cover the median rent that is currently in the U.S. So, that’s around $2,000 a month. And so, the problem is, is that much of the program has not actually been updated since its inception or since the 1980s. And so, things like the asset limit, which is basically the amount that you’re allowed to save, is extremely low right now. It’s about $2,000 for an individual, $4,000 for couples. And for an individual to be able to, you know, much of society tells you that you need to save money. And for an individual not to be able to save money, particularly during times of crisis, including during a pandemic or during a weather emergency, it means that that individual is in a really sticky situation where they can’t afford to do certain things like get out of the way of the path of a hurricane or be able to pick up and move if they need to, if their location is flooding, or be able to even fix the car if it breaks, as somebody else recently talked about earlier. And so, these things like asset limits really cause individuals to remain in poverty. And so, they don’t have any choices in their lives to be able to afford things like car repairs or medical bills or any other sort of emergent issues that are going on.
And then you look at things like in-kind assistance, where you can be penalized for those kinds of things or being penalized for earning a little bit of money because, as I said earlier, the maximum payment is below poverty. And so, a lot of people need to earn a little extra money to be able to pay for food. And I remember as a college student myself, I wasn’t able to afford food during the summer years because, I mean, during the summer months while I was in college because I didn’t have enough money to cover both rent and food, and my current loans didn’t cover food at the same time. And so, I was literally eating things like peanuts and ramen to stay afloat while I was in college. So, the program just really needs massive updates to help get people at least above poverty line.
VALLAS: Mia, thank you for all of that. And Tom, I’m actually gonna take you to our next question for time purposes, which is to talk a little bit about some of those updates that are what we need to see happen to bring the SSI program into the 21st century. What are the updates that AARP is supporting and that others we’ve been hearing from as well have been fighting for to bring the program to where it was originally supposed to be? And I wanna note that we’re having this conversation in the middle of a global pandemic, of course, that is not only not over, but it’s also, it’s already caused the largest mass disabling event in modern history. And I know, Mia, that’s a lot on your mind as well. So, I’ll give you one more chance to speak to this question as well. But Tom, talk about the updates that we need to see. And how urgently are they needed for seniors right now?
NICHOLS: Certainly so. Thanks, Rebecca. So, let me start with the urgently. Absolutely urgently, right? And we should do these things as soon as possible. So, AARP thinks that there should be several updates to SSI, right? So, we should certainly be able to increase benefits to get people up to the poverty level. Congress should update both what are called the general and earned income exclusions for SSI, which haven’t kept pace with inflation since 1981. We think that Congress should modify SSI’s rules to support informal caregiving arrangements that go on. And frankly, we think that SSA, the Social Security Administration, should make it easier for folks to apply for SSI, particularly online.
But of course, one of the main things that we wanted to talk about today was that increase in the asset limits, right? Asset limits haven’t been adjusted since 1980. As a result, that $2,000 and $3,000 limit for an individual or a couple since it was set so long ago and not updated for inflation, that that effectively, that number actually gets smaller and smaller every year, right? We recognize that $2,000 went a lot further in 1989 than it does in 2022. And what that ultimately does is that it prevents a lot of older folks who are actually in need from qualifying for SSI and getting the help that they actually do need. And so, that’s why AARP has been proud to endorse the bipartisan SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act that was introduced by Senators Brown and Portman and endorsed by a host of bipartisan organizations as well, and why we think that, again, Congress should get to this as soon as they possibly can to increase those asset limits, which would allow older Americans to save a little bit more to help them weather financial and other emergencies, to again, sort of increase the folks who are eligible, older folks who are eligible, for SSI, and to improve their income security over the long term, including a chance for a little bit of retirement security as well.
VALLAS: Tom, thank you so much. And Mia, in 60 seconds, you’re gonna to get the last word on that one.
IVES-RUBLEE: Yeah. I think the asset limit area is extremely important. If we can at least raise it or get rid of it, I think that’s essential. I think also understanding that there’s going to be significant pressure on the program because 1.2 million more people are disabled. We’re seeing more and more people become disabled due to the pandemic and other causes. So, I think it’s just going to be essential that we review and renew our focus on improving the program so that it really does live up its name and its creation.
VALLAS: Mia, Tom, thank you so much to you both for being in this fight and for being with us today. And next up, we’re gonna switch gears for just a little bit for the next part of our program, because October doesn’t just mark SSI’s 50th anniversary, it also marks National Disability Employment Awareness Month, which is often called NDEAM. So, before we get into our next panel, we’re gonna hear from Steve Grammer, who is an SSI beneficiary. He’s also an advocate with The Arc of the United States, and he’s gonna talk a little bit about how SSI’s outdated asset limits, which we were just hearing about, and other outdated rules impact him and other beneficiaries’ ability to work. So, next, we’ll hear from Steve.
STEVE GRAMMER: [via digital communication device] My name is Steve from Virginia. I rely on Social Security benefits to pay my bills, get the everyday things that I need, such as personal items and clothing. This allows me to live in the least restrictive environment possible, which is my ADA right. The drawback to SSI is I am not allowed to have more than $2,000 in my bank account. This does not allow me to save for emergency situations. Also, when I had a job, Social Security took out a portion of my check if I went over the amount. Unfortunately, I am better off not working so I don’t get penalized for going over the limit.
VALLAS: Thanks so much, Steve, for your words, for your advocacy, and also for the commentary that you’re writing for TCF’s Voices of Disability Economic Justice Project, which we’re looking forward to publishing in just a few weeks. So, with that as the perfect grounding for this next conversation, looking at why we’re starting to see employers and policy shapers across the political spectrum teaming up to call on Congress to update SSI’s outdated asset limits and more, I’m thrilled to welcome our next panelist to the virtual stage to have a little bit of that conversation with me. Nan Gibson is the executive director of JPMorgan Chase’s Policy Center, and Will Raderman is an employment policy analyst at the libertarian Niskanen Center. Nan, Will, thank you so much for being with us today, and I’m gonna first go to you, Nan, to offer a visual description, and then, Will, you can take it from there.
NAN GIBSON: Thanks, Rebecca. And hi, everyone. I am a white woman with blond-ish hair. I have dark square glasses, and I’m wearing a brown jacket with a black shirt.
WILL RADERMAN: And I’m Will Raderman. I’m a white man wearing a blue or navy-blue sweater and a collared shirt. Great to meet everybody.
VALLAS: Wonderful. Well, thanks to both of you for being with us. And as I mentioned, October doesn’t just mark SSI’s 50th, it’s also NDEAM, the National Disability Employment Awareness Month, that many in the community lift up as well. And so, Nan, going to you first, we just heard from Steve, who’s a current SSI beneficiary, about how the program is standing in the way of savings and work for him and for other beneficiaries. And earlier this year, JPMorgan Chase actually released a report finding that SSI’s outdated eligibility rules like income and asset limits that we’ve been hearing about today hamper economic opportunity and employment for disabled people. Can you talk a little bit about what that report found, and why as an employer, JPMorgan Chase has been calling on policymakers to update SSI?
GIBSON: Yes. Thank you, Rebecca. And again, thank you all for this terrific panel. So, just to start out, JPMorgan Chase’s Policy Center works on policy reforms that generally drive more inclusive economic growth. And when one in four Americans, or over 60 million adults, live with some type of disability, this is obviously an issue that we all need to pay close attention to. And JPMorgan Chase is working to be both an employer of choice for people with disabilities and also a bank of choice for customers with disabilities. More about that a little bit later on.
But one of the things we’re doing is working to advance more inclusive workplaces and careers and supporting the disability community in a variety of ways. But the main thing that we’re here to talk about today is the fact that we need better public policy, as has been mentioned a lot throughout our conversation this morning, in order for people with disabilities to be able to fully participate in the economy. So, what we looked at in the brief is how the current income and asset limits on federal benefits through Supplemental Security Income, how those program benefits for people with disabilities are impacting them, and as has been mentioned a fair amount, these limits are obviously set way too low. They’re creating barriers to people with disability joining the workforce and saving for the future. It’s the 50th anniversary of the program, but aspects of this program haven’t been updated in 30 to 40 years, yet during this time, we’ve seen lots of advancements in medicine and technology that have made it possible for more people with disabilities to work and open up other economic opportunities.
It’s been noted that the SSI limits on assets such as savings are capped at about $2,000 for individuals, about $3,000, I believe, for folks, for married couples, which really makes it difficult for these families to achieve any measure of economic security. And it also creates a clear disincentive for marriage. I wanna point out and bring in some research by my colleagues at the JPMorgan Chase Institute, which has shown that roughly six weeks of income provides an important financial backstop for any family, for the typical family. And so, what that means is that the typical middle-income family needs about $5,000 of savings in order to be able, sorry, in order to be able to weather any type of negative shock to their income or their spending, as was noted earlier, whether it’s trying to get to safety during a hurricane, or maybe a large medical bill comes your way. So, these asset limits for people on SSI just falls way short of the backstop that the families need. And so, this means that far too many people with disabilities faced this dilemma between keeping their assets and wages really low or risking the loss of eligibility for SSI, which provides that steady survival income and health insurance for them.
Oftentimes what this means for individuals who work for companies like ours and other companies is that they can’t participate in our retirement savings plan, or it means—or our stock program, for that matter—and it also means that they may worry about working too many hours or getting a bonus or a raise and things that might put them over the earnings cap for SSI benefits. So, it’s a real dilemma for these families. And again, that is why we are calling on policymakers to update the outdated rules for supplemental security income benefits to reflect the current economic conditions, but also to keep pace with inflation.
VALLAS: Nan, thank you so much for all of that and for JPMorgan Chase’s amazing leadership as really one of the employers and businesses speaking at the loudest volume in this moment about the need to act.
Will, I’m gonna bring you in next here because updating SSI is increasingly and fortunately becoming a bipartisan call. We’ve got stakeholders and advocates and policymakers now across the political spectrum catching up with, frankly, voters across the political spectrum who want to see the program’s outdated rules updated, and especially because some of these barriers to savings and barriers to work that we’ve been hearing about today. So, talk a little bit about why we’re seeing conservative and libertarian allies like Niskanen and even the American Enterprise Institute calling to update SSI.
NICHOLS: Well, I don’t wanna speak for every organization and center, but I can say that the way that the program is structured now, you’ve got really kind of crucial benefits for recipients, but there’s a lot of strings attached that limit the freedom to make big life decisions. So, kind of what you’ve said, there’s limitations to work, savings, and marriage that recipients, if they wanna be getting their monthly benefits, they have to take on those limitations. So, Steve, who talked right before I just hopped on the panel, he was talking about how there’s a really harsh asset cap that he has to abide by. When you think about what a recipient is going through month to month if they go over that $2,000 limit, they could have their monthly benefits suspended. If they are looking at trying to embrace a part-time job because they’re interested in working, their benefits are actually reduced. So, for every dollar of earnings after $85, or just $85 in income a month, every dollar that they earn, their benefits are reduced by $0.50. And so, there’s this really big disincentive to actually pursue work.
Beyond just that kind of benefit reduction you’re seeing there’s an actual delay in how those benefits get adjusted. So, if you’re someone who’s kind of worried about the risk entailed with taking a new job because of that benefit reduction, it’s a challenge. So, you could say, “All right, I’m gonna take a job and earn $700 a month,” and you’ll see your benefits reduced by a few hundred dollars. And then let’s say you realize you can’t take the job, or you become unemployed and for whatever reason don’t qualify for unemployment benefits, it can take a couple months for your benefits to actually reset to the higher value. So, you’re seeing both asset and income rules that are kind of making it harder to pursue different opportunities.
And I think when you’re seeing a bunch of different organizations across the political spectrum that have taken an interest in this, it’s because these are the kinds of rules that are limiting people from making decisions for themselves that have not been adjusted in decades. And it’s really just minor changes that have been proposed this year that would really go a long way.
VALLAS: Well, and Will, staying with you for a moment. In addition to helping beneficiaries save and work, another thing that we’ve heard from some conservatives, libertarians, folks kind of all over the political spectrum as another argument for why we need to update SSI is actually about how burdensome the current program is for the Social Security Administration to administer. And you’ve looked at this. You’ve been one of the people crunching some of the numbers. How expensive is SSI to administer compared with, say, Social Security’s retirement and disability and survivor’s benefits that are so much better known? And is it fair to say that we’re currently spending significant sums of taxpayer dollars to keep people trapped below the poverty level?
RADERMAN: Yeah. So, I’ll present two statistics to kind of help with visualizing it. But SSI, or Social Security broadly, you’re seeing it’s got a population about eight times the size of SSI, but SSI is about 80 percent of the administrative costs despite being such a smaller program. So, that’s because of all the administration and means testing involved with managing everyone’s benefits month to month. The other statistic, which might be a bit easier to kind of get a better picture of, but SSI is five percent of all the benefits distributed by the SSA, but the program itself requires 35 percent of the administration’s administrative budget. So, you’re seeing not just a lot more cost involved with managing the program, but that disproportionate amount of management is passed along to the recipients themselves, where their monthly activities are getting heavily micromanaged, where it makes it a real challenge to pursue different activities that they would like to. It could be much easier than that for a lot of people.
VALLAS: Easier for a lot of people, and also cheaper for the Social Security Administration. Nan, you’re gonna get the last word in just the last minute or so that we have here. And so, as we close out this conversation about National Disability Employment Awareness Month and some of the barriers to work and savings that have businesses and bipartisan allies coming together to fight for updating SSI, I wanna give you a chance to talk a little bit about that legislation that you mentioned before, the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act that Senator Brown and Portman introduced with Senators Wyden, Casey, Cassidy, Scott, Collins, and possibly more if I’ve lost track of how many co-sponsors they have today. Talk a little bit about what the bill would do, how it would help address the barriers to savings we’ve been hearing about, and why JPMorgan Chase is supporting that bill. You’ve got about one minute.
GIBSON: Oh, terrific. I can do it. Yes, this is a terrific bipartisan bill, the Savings Penalty Elimination Act. We applaud the leadership of Senators Portman and Brown on this. It’s a terrific example of common-sense updates in working in a bipartisan way. That particular legislation would boost asset limits to $10,000 for individuals, $20,000 for couples and their families with disabled children. Thereafter, it would index those limits to inflation, which we think is obviously very important. And it would also eliminate the penalty for married couples. So, these changes would enable people with disabilities to be able to earn and save more for emergencies and life’s essentials without risking their critical benefits. It would lift millions of people out of poverty, open up economic opportunities for people with disabilities. We definitely agree that that’s a terrific piece of legislation.
We’d also like to see Congress do a few other things. And one I’ll just mention quickly in the interest of time, we’d also like to see Congress eliminate the sub-minimum wage for workers with disabilities, which is still allowed under current law. I mean, these types of measures would ensure that more people with disabilities can join the labor force, advance their careers, save for the future, support their families without risking the important economic security net of SSI.
VALLAS: Thank you so much, Nan and Will, to both of you for being with us today, but also for your phenomenal advocacy and partnership alongside so many of the other folks we’ve been hearing from today when it comes to fighting to update SSI. Another reminder, folks can join the conversation using #SSIAt50.
And next up, it’s my great privilege to introduce two of the senators who have been fighting tirelessly to update this program and who have, with Republican allies like Senator Rob Portman, who we’ve been hearing about, been driving much of the historic momentum that we’ve seen building on Capitol Hill over the past two years for bringing SSI into the 21st century, Senator Sherrod Brown and Senator Ron Wyden. Senator Sherrod Brown is no stranger to this community as a longtime champion of low-income and marginalized communities in the Senate. He’s also one of the longtime leaders of the SSI Restoration Act. And Senator Wyden similarly needs no introduction as the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and a former Gray Panther himself, who many of us were cheered to hear commit publicly earlier this year in a hearing to working across the aisle to get SSI’s asset limits updated before the end of this Congress. So, as we all cross our fingers for that commitment, we’ll turn next to Senator Brown and Senator Wyden.
SENATOR SHERROD BROWN: I’m Sherrod Brown. It’s a privilege to serve the people of Ohio in the United States Senate. Thank you to The Century Foundation for hosting and to everyone here celebrating the 50th anniversary of Supplemental Security Income, the SSI program. It’s hard to believe that 50 years ago this was a new program signed into law with broad bipartisan support. We celebrate SSI in the lifeline it provides for eight million—eight million—Americans. But we know that Washington neglected this program for too long. We know how much needs to be done to bring SSI into the 21st century. Its rules force millions of people with disabilities to live in poverty, punishing them for trying to build a little financial security. Think about this. They’re punished if they try to save for an emergency. They’re punished if they try to find a part-time job. They’re punished even if they get married. It makes no sense. That’s why I introduced the SSI Restoration Act to finally, after decades, to increase SSI benefit levels and simplify the rules.
Last fall, in a subcommittee that I chair on the Senate Finance Committee, we called the first Senate hearing on improving SSI in a quarter century. Think about that. For 25 years, there’s not even been a Senate hearing on improving SSI. That hearing led to bipartisan support for increasing the asset limit for the first time since 1984. This common-sense idea has the support from everyone from disability justice advocates to conservative think tanks to JPMorgan Chase. And when JPMorgan Chase and I, when Wall Street banks and I are on the same page, [chuckles] you know it’s an exceptionally good idea. Here’s what it comes down to: Disability rights, to me, are human rights. People with disabilities deserve to live healthy, happy, productive lives. They deserve to live with dignity. My bipartisan bill with my colleague from Ohio, Republican Senator Portman—I’m a Democrat. This is a bipartisan effort—the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act is a first step in making that reality. We wouldn’t have made it this far without all of you. Your voices and your activism make a real difference in this.
And I’ll close with a short story. Every year in the spring, I ask six colleagues, three Republicans, three Democrats, to come to the Senate floor and join me in reading a letter from Dr. King to the ministers from the Birmingham jail. And you may remember, if you probably read this in high school, I’d suggest you read again. It’s an extraordinary piece of writing, as Dr. King’s writings usually are. And he was right. He was appealing to the white moderate ministers in Birmingham, Montgomery and Birmingham, all of the state, ministers who would, cautioned Dr. King, say, you know, we’re with you. We want voting rights for African Americans, too, but not too fast, Dr. King. And his patience had run out. And in this letter, in the middle of the letter, Dr. King said, “Progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. Progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” And Dr. King was right. It rolls in because Americans like you take on powerful special interests, challenge the status quo, dedicate your lives to moving forward for all Americans, recognize that as women’s rights and human rights and voting rights and disability rights and gay rights, all are part of what we should strive for and continue to fight for as advocates for human rights across the spectrum. So, thank you for what you’re doing. We’ll continue to work together.
SENATOR RON WYDEN: This is Ron Wyden, the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, and I have long been a supporter of the Supplemental Security Income Program, which is a lifeline for so many vulnerable Americans. While SSI currently supports eight million Americans, including 90,000 Oregonians, it is so clear that the program needs an overhaul. It’s been 40 years since the program was last updated. The long application process and outdated income and asset requirements make it unnecessarily, unfairly difficult to receive these lifeline benefits and maintain them when they’re needed most. As chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m working with my colleagues in the Social Security Administration, and most importantly, simplify the application for SSI and make it more accessible. I’ve also been working to improve the agency’s efforts to reach and serve all Americans eligible for SSI, especially children. And I’ve been proud to partner with my friends, Senator Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, to introduce the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act. This is the first bipartisan SSI reform bill in the program’s 50-year history. We know our work is far from over. Change doesn’t start from the top down. It comes from the grassroots up.
Finally, because of advocates like you who’ve worked tirelessly to put SSI front and center, there is new momentum in Congress to finally update this program. And I want all of you to know as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, I’m committed to working with any and all senators to build on the SSI program’s long legacy, and that we ensure that there is a more accessible application and that the program is updated to help Americans who so need this program live with dignity.
VALLAS: Thanks so much to Senator Brown and Senator Wyden, whom we’re so lucky to have with us in this fight. And another note of thanks to Senator Portman in absentia for his committed partnership at their side.
Next up, I’m especially thrilled to introduce another powerhouse SSI champion and dear friend, Kristen Dama, who serves as the managing attorney for the SSI Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, which I’m proud to call my legal aid alma mater. SSI has a long history of national advocacy led by Community Legal Services, including winning a landmark Supreme Court case called Zebley, which expanded access to SSI for hundreds of thousands of disabled children over the years. Kristen, welcome to the event. Thank you for being here, and I’ll give it to you first to offer a visual description.
KRISTEN DAMA: Thank you so much for having me, Rebecca. My name, as you said, is Kristen Dama. I use she/her pronouns. I’m a white woman with short brown hair. I’m wearing a navy blazer, and I have a blurred background.
VALLAS: And I’m thrilled to be in conversation with you as our program starts to draw to a close here and enters its final chapter for a lot of reasons, but in large part because we haven’t really talked much yet about what SSI means to disabled kids and their families in particular, as well as some of the eligibility and access challenges that leave you and me and other folks sometimes saying, “Eligibility doesn’t equal access.” So, before we get to that, I’d love to give you a chance to talk about what SSI means to kids with disabilities and their families. We’ve heard a lot about what it means to working-age disabled adults and seniors, but what does SSI mean to kids with disabilities and their families? And talk a little bit about how the program has evolved over the years to better serve disabled kids, thanks in large part to CLS’s advocacy.
DAMA: Sure. Well, SSI is a lifeline for families with disabled children. We know that parents of disabled kids have a hard time staying connected to full-time work ‘cause doctor’s appointments, therapy, childcare disruptions, caretaking needs. And medical co-pays and supports are expensive for kids, just like they are for adults. The SSI program is most, it is the safety net for a lot of families. It creates financial stability, and it allows families, a lot of families, to stay together, and it keeps a roof over their head. It keeps the lights on.
CLS has advocated for families and children with SSA in Congress for decades. In 1990 my colleagues Jonathan Stein and Richard Weishaupt brought a landmark case Sullivan v. Zebley before the U.S. Supreme Court. And that court decision requires Social Security Administration to look not just at whether children meet hard, strict medical criteria, which are called the listings, but it also requires the program to take a functional approach and look at whether children, how children learn, how they interact with others, how they show up at school and in caretaking settings like childcare and with their families and their friends, and how they take care of themselves. We at CLS are really proud of Zebley, and something that again has really opened the door for a lot of families. But what we’re seeing, particularly after the pandemic, is it’s very hard for them to walk through that door. There’s so much more work to do. We’ve seen a sharp drop in children’s applications and awards during the pandemic. And so, now that we’re sort of transitioning out of the pandemic and thinking about what, I shudder to say “post-pandemic,” but whatever phase we’re in now, what we need to do to start to make sure that that program is accessible to all of those families who lost touch with this piece of the safety net over the last few years.
VALLAS: Well, and Kristen, that’s exactly where I wanna take you next, because we’ve heard a little bit today about how programs like SSI have become even more important in the COVID era—which just to restate it, because it can’t be overstated enough—we are living through a mass disabling event that has been spurred by the millions of folks with long COVID. But meanwhile, the pandemic has also presented its own set of challenges when it comes to accessing critical programs like SSI. This is something you and I and others often talk about in the advocacy world, but not often in public forums. So, I’d love to give you a chance to talk a little bit about what you and I and other advocates mean when we say that eligibility doesn’t equal access. How has SSI been faring in the pandemic? What have you been seeing on the ground? Who’s getting left behind?
DAMA: Sure. Thank you. So, SSI is mostly a walk-in service. It’s a service where the entire infrastructure is built around people walking into an office with hard-to-understand paperwork and having people explain the paperwork, having people walk them through that system. It’s hard to solve problems over the phone. It’s hard for people to access the program electronically, even when there are online services because of low levels of digital literacy, access to broadband Internet, lots of other barriers. And so, the pandemic has been really devastating for the SSI program. There was a point when offices were closed in the peak of the pandemic where applications and awards were consistently down about 40 percent, which is just a huge drop even at a time when more and more people were becoming disabled because of long COVID. And people’s incomes were, people were really being disconnected from work, supportive work, because of pandemic shutdowns. And so, we would assume that benefits would go up, and in fact, they plummeted. And I think it is because of that lack of access.
And anecdotally, in the legal services world, we’re seeing those persistent service disruptions with the hardest to reach communities: people who are limited English proficient, immigrant communities like refugees and asylees, people with low levels of literacy, people who are returning from incarceration, who are precariously housed, all those people who have a hard time on their best day accessing the safety net. It just has not been an opportunity possible for them during the pandemic. And even now that Social Security offices are reopened, which is fantastic, numbers are starting to go back up in terms of applications, maybe to some extent, awards. But Social Security’s been starved for funding—I think you’ve touched on that already—for more than a decade, and their staffing levels are at an all-time low. There really just are not enough people to answer the phones, to do even some of those in-person services. And I think we’re really just at a point where we’re reaching crisis levels, and in order to make sure that the SSI program can attain the promise that we talked about in the beginning of the show, it’s really important that we invest in operations and make the program accessible, especially in communities where people have no choice but to walk in the doors.
VALLAS: Yeah, I so appreciate, Kristen, you bringing in the administrative funding piece of this because that is a very live fight right now in Congress and not one that is inevitably going to end well for Social Security and which is very related to access. You and other advocates have been pointing out that the kinds of access barriers that you’re describing were not created by the pandemic, even if they were significantly made worse. And in fact, huge numbers of eligible people were actually being left behind by SSI well before COVID-19 became a household name. Why has it become a truism at this point that you need a law degree to access SSI benefits? Talk a little bit about some of the human consequences of what folks sometimes call “bureaucratic disentitlement.” And what are some of the solutions that you and other advocates have been calling for to ensure that more eligible people are reached by the benefits that are intended to help them?
DAMA: Sure. I think that one of the things, I think not even necessarily by design, Social Security is just so weighted down in statutory and regulatory rules that make it impossible to navigate even for some lawyers. We have a lot of lawyers in our legal services community who are SSI specialists and are very uncomfortable working in this world because there are so many landmines. And if it’s like that for us, imagine what it’s like for somebody who is trying to navigate this on their own with no help. The application process is incredibly complicated. It asks lots and lots of questions that aren’t necessarily needed, especially at the beginning of the process. As we’ve said, it’s really hard to get service and get things explained. And it takes a very long time to qualify. More than two thirds of applicants, or approximately two thirds of applicants, are denied at the initial application stage. There are many layers of appeals, and the appeals can take years. A lot of people give up either on purpose or by accident during that appeals process, and some people die before they qualify for benefits.
And so, I don’t believe that we as a country want that system to work like this. And I think we just have so many layers of rules and procedure and process that this moment where we’re seeing so many declines, and also, we’re celebrating the program and its successes, feel like a really good moment to take a hard look at how we can make this program work the way that everybody has always intended. And I think some of that means getting people more help, which as we talked about, having more people working in the offices, also having assisters, not just lawyers, but case managers, social service workers, a broader expansion of the SOAR program, which is a program that helps homeless or unhoused and precariously housed people get on in a streamlined way. That is absolutely something we should do, similar to what we’ve done in the VA context or the IRS context. And then I think we should really look hard at how to make the rules simpler. We talked a ton. People said such great things, and I won’t repeat them, about the asset limits. In addition to allowing people to stay, that just makes everything easier. It frees up staff time, and it makes the program have fewer gotchas.
But there are lots of other rules like that that could be simplified very easily. One of them is a rule called in-kind support maintenance, where people lose a third of their benefits even if a family member helps them pay a utility bill or buy groceries. There are ways to change that in Congress, but there’s also things Social Security can do to exempt more people, especially if they’re known to be having a hard time making ends meet because they’re getting other public benefits. And then for families, we talked about kids earlier. Lots and lots and lots of families do qualify for SSI and never see their full benefits that they’re owed, this retroactive pot of money that was accumulating for them while they were needing to get through all their appeals. And there are ways that we can make those rules easier, too, so that families can deal with inflation, keep the lights on, all of those things, and their children can get their full benefits.
VALLAS: And Community Legal Services plays many, many leadership roles within the national advocacy space, including fighting to push the Social Security Administration to change some of its own rules in ways that it has authority to do, which includes some of the items that you just put on that list. And I wish we could give you a magic wand to be queen for a day to make it all happen, but it’s a wonderful list to add onto the board for today’s conversation. Kristen, thank you so much for your leadership, your advocacy, for being here today. And just a huge thank you to everyone at Community Legal Services who’s been fighting for years to strengthen SSI.
We’ve got one more special message from another powerhouse CLS SSI champion. Jonathan Stein is CLS’s former general counsel who served as lead counsel in the Zebley case that Kristen was just speaking about. And I’ll note on a personal note, he’s also one of the people who taught me nearly everything I know about SSI as a young legal aid lawyer. John.
JONATHAN STEIN: Greetings. Here at Community Legal Services in Philadelphia, we would like to thank The Century [Foundation] for initiating this important 50th-year celebration anniversary of the SSI program. Having won in 1991 the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Sullivan v. Zebley that enabled hundreds of thousands of severely disabled children to finally access the SSI program, we have seen the very concrete benefits of the program in enabling parents to meet the essential needs of their children and to provide income security for their families, as well as accessing medical assistance health insurance. Yet, we would be complacent not to recognize that many hundreds of thousands of low-income disabled children are not yet enrolled on the SSI program due to a variety of bureaucratic and statutory barriers. So, let us celebrate the wonderful achievements of the SSI program for adults and children in providing income security and reducing poverty of great numbers of beneficiaries. But also recognize that a long-term neglect of this program requires us now together, to work together to pursue remedial reforms to meet the original goals of the SSI program at its birth 50 years ago. Thank you very much.
VALLAS: Thank you so much, John. And to round out our event today, we’ve got a few more special messages from SSI champions on and off Capitol Hill. Congressman Danny Davis from Illinois serves as chairman of the Ways and Means Worker and Family Support Subcommittee. Congressman Raúl Grijalva has tirelessly led the way on the SSI Restoration Act in the House for over a decade. Bill Arnone serves as CEO of the National Academy of Social Insurance, which I’m proud to serve as the Secretary of. And last but certainly not least, Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the leaders of the SSI Restoration Act, whose leadership on updating SSI is a big part of why all the long overdue updates to this program that we’ve been hearing about today are now part of the Democratic Party platform. We’ll go to those special messages next.
CONGRESSMAN DANNY DAVIS: I am Congressman Danny Davis, and I have the privilege of chairing the Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support within the House Ways and Means Committee. My subcommittee has responsibility for the Supplemental Security Income program, or SSI. So, I’m pleased to join today to celebrate the 50th anniversary of SSI. And when I think of SSI, I think about food, shelter, heat in the winter, cooling in the summer, and dignity. These are things that Supplemental Security Income has provided to American seniors and those with severe disabilities over the past 50 years. In Cook County, Illinois, which includes my congressional district, over 140,000 people rely on SSI to help buy food, pay rent, keep the lights on, and pay out-of-pocket healthcare costs. In addition to supporting seniors and adults with disabilities, Social Security Income benefits also help many children with disabilities and health conditions access the specialized care and treatment they need. Further, Social Security helps compensate for the loss of income that is common for parents managing their children’s complex care. Over 33,000 Illinois children receive these vital supports each month. I have committed much of my career to ensuring that children can get a fair and healthy start, and I know that SSI is a key element contributing to the well-being of vulnerable children in our country.
Even as we celebrate 50 years of SSI, we must acknowledge that we could do more. Benefits have not kept up with the cost of living, and outdated limitations on assets have created too much instability. I am especially concerned about Americans who need SSI and qualify for it but who are not getting help. In 2020, SSA awarded Social Security Income benefits to 37 percent fewer children than in 2010, and we saw a sharp drop-off in SSA applications by Americans of all ages during the pandemic even as we know more people needed help. We have worked closely with the Social Security Administration to improve outreach to those missing seniors and people with disabilities as they reopen their field office, but there is much more that we need to do. My colleagues and I at the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Worker and Family Support look forward to continuing to fight for dignity for our most vulnerable citizens and to make SSI’s impact even bigger over the next 50 years. So, yes, I thank you for the chance to speak with you today. Have a wonderful event. And Social Security benefits are great for our seniors and for our country.
RAÚL GRIJALVA: Thank you very much. And I just wanna take the opportunity to thank The Century Foundation, the allied organizations that are responsible for this event, the stakeholders, and the advocates for SSI on its 50th anniversary, a program that countless millions of our fellow Americans rely on: older people, persons with disabilities, children across this nation. And this program is vital and is necessary. And anyone that has a family member that depends on SSI, anyone that knows someone that depends on SSI as their fundamental base of income and sustenance in this country are all, are all advocates for SSI as I am. And I wanna say that the antiquated income and asset limits need to change, and we have an opportunity up ‘til January, until the next session, a new Congress comes in, to do just that. And I hope the collaboration between the Senate and the House moves language to deal with this inequality for SSI. Happy 50th. Thank you, Foundation. Much appreciated.
BILL ARNONE: A couple of years ago, our academy issued a white paper on assured income, and among the programs we looked at was SSI. And I wanted to quote from that report. “SSI was viewed by its early proponents as one milestone on a continuum of contemporary public assistance legislation.” And we added a quote that, “to some, SSI ushered in a new way of thinking about welfare. By setting a nationally uniform income floor, SSI made available for the first time a minimum level of assistance to people in need, regardless of their place of residence or family circumstance. Clearly, SSI was consistent with the vision articulated by the Committee on Economic Security in 1935, which said, ‘Our goal as a nation should be an assured level of income from childhood through old age’.” While it was an awesome beginning, I think we all recognize that it has lost ground because of neglect. And now we have a wonderful opportunity, thanks to efforts like The Century Foundation’s, to elevate SSI back on the national congressional and political landscape so that we finally act to enhance it so it does what it was intended to do: provide a floor of income, and I might add, adequate income, so that people no longer are plunged into poverty when they’re in the groups that SSI benefits based on old age and disability in particular. So, I’m eager to do everything that we can here at the Academy to support your efforts. And a lot has been accomplished already, and there’s more to be done. So, keep up the fabulous work.
SENATOR ELIZABETH WARREN: Hi, folks. I am sorry that I can’t be celebrating in person with you today, but I am so glad to have a chance just to say thank you. First off, I just wanna say how incredible it is to be celebrating 50 years of SSI. For the past 50 years, this program has been a critical lifeline, literally for millions of Americans. And this includes low-income seniors, Americans with disabilities, and families who are caring for children with disabilities who need extra help to provide a safe and healthy life for them. SSI [is an] essential program that millions of people rely on. But as you all know, it is not a perfect program. Decades of federal neglect have left SSI with outdated and punitive rules that squeeze way too many struggling families out of the program, not to mention that this program traps about four out of 10 recipients in poverty.
So, I am really proud to co-lead the SSI Restoration Act with Senator Brown. It would go a long way toward making updates to the program so that SSI recipients aren’t penalized for trying to get out of poverty by working, by saving, or by getting married. I am also glad to see growing bipartisan support for reforms. SSI’s original goal was to make sure that elderly Americans and Americans with disabilities wouldn’t be forced to subsist on below-poverty level incomes. Fifty years later, we are not there yet, but I am proud to be fighting alongside you to reform this program so that it fills its original goals. So, thank you again for the opportunity to speak to all of you today. Thank you for holding a celebration for 50 years of terrific work. I’m excited to see what we can accomplish together so that in another 50 years, SSI is truly serving every American who needs it. Thank you.
VALLAS: Thank you so much to Chairman Davis, Congressman Grijalva, Bill Arnone, and Senator Warren for your leadership on updating SSI. I hope it doesn’t take us 50 more years to get to where we need to go. And thank you to all of our fantastic speakers for being with us to mark SSI’s 50th anniversary today.
As we wrap up today’s event, I’d like to close by returning to the words from Dr. King that Senator Brown shared with us earlier. That “progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.” Much as we’ve reflected today on the human consequences of decades of neglect of this bedrock part of our Social Security system, this is also a moment to celebrate the historic visibility and momentum that SSI has seen over the past two years, which is a testament to the efforts of far more people than just the handful that you’ve heard from today. A friend in the movement taught me years ago that an advocate is someone who simply refuses to go away, and that’s what it’s gonna take from all of us as we look ahead to the next 50 years of this critical program. And it’s in that spirit that I’d like to close out with a message and a call to action to us all from our friends at The Arc who delivered thousands of letters from SSI beneficiaries to Chairman Wyden and others on The Hill just this week, calling on Congress to finally update SSI, starting with its antiquated asset limits. And that’s where we’ll close. Thank you for being here today.
CLAIRE: Hi, I’m Claire, and we are on Capitol Hill today to drop off thousands of stories from advocates all across the country to urge members of Congress to raise SSI asset limits. It is almost the 50th anniversary of SSI, but asset limits haven’t been raised since 1989. Join us by visiting the TheArc.org/action. [theme music returns]
VALLAS: And that does it for this week’s show. Off-Kilter is powered by The Century Foundation and produced by We Act Radio, with a special shoutout to executive producer Troy Miller and his merry band of farm animals, and the indefatigable Abbie Grimshaw. Transcripts, which help us make the show accessible, are courtesy of Cheryl Green and her fabulous feline coworker. Find us every week on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your pods. And if you like what we do here at Off-Kilter Enterprises, send us some love by hitting that subscribe button and rating and reviewing the show on Apple Podcasts to help other folks find the pod. Thanks again for listening and see you next week.