Supplemental Security Income benefits haven't changed in years. Now there's a push in Congress to alter that

Sinenkiy | iStock | Getty Images

Federal benefits for aged, blind and disabled Americans have not been updated in years.

Now, some lawmakers and advocates are pushing for changes to the program — called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI — to be part of legislation being promoted in Congress.

However, it is still unclear whether that will happen.

Proposed SSI reforms were not included in an initial budget proposal by House Democrats.

Yet this week a Senate Finance subcommittee held the first hearing on the program since 1998, a sign that Senate leadership, particularly Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., plan to keep fighting for it.

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The hearing was led by Brown, who in June reintroduced the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act.

But hopes to get sweeping SSI reform included in the package could be dashed as lawmakers work to whittle the total cost of the Build Back Better package down from $3.5 trillion.

However, there could be room for more incremental changes to the program, which largely hasn't been touched since 1972.

“The Senate should take the opportunity to add some of these important SSI improvements into the Build Back Better legislation, even if the package cannot accommodate the full SSI Restoration Act,” Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said during testimony at the hearing.

The SSI Restoration Act would freshen the program's rules, many of which have been in effect for years and are outdated, advocates argue.

SSI provides monthly benefit checks to Americans who have little or no income and are aged, blind or disabled. The money supports basic needs, such as food, clothing and shelter.

About 8 million people — including adults, children with disabilities and seniors — receive the benefits.

Some lawmakers and advocates say the program's benefits are outdated and saddled with unfair rules.

The average monthly SSI payment is around $586, according to the Social Security Administration. The maximum benefit is $794 per month, which is 75% of the federal poverty level.

In addition, there are strict asset limits, whereby a single beneficiary can have up to $2,000 in savings. That has not changed since 1989.

There are all kinds of ways to dial down the cost.
Kathleen Romig
senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

Beneficiaries also face strict income limits. If they work, they can only keep up to $65 of their earnings each month. Earnings above that threshold reduce benefits by $1 for every $2 in income.

While SSI beneficiaries can collect other benefits, including Social Security, they can only keep $20 per month. If the benefits exceed that amount, their SSI benefits are reduced dollar for dollar.

SSI benefits were dubbed the “forgotten safety net” during a 1987 House Ways and Means hearing, Brown said at the Senate subcommittee hearing this week.

“It was a fitting title then and it would be an even more fitting title now, given the decades of neglect that has hurt millions of Americans,” Brown said.

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and ranking member of the Senate Banking Committee, speaks at a Washington, D.C., hearing on July 16, 2019.
Andrew Harrer | Bloomberg | Getty Images

The SSI Restoration Act Brown has proposed would increase SSI benefits by 31% and bring them up to the federal poverty level. It would also index those benefits to inflation.

The proposal would also increase the asset caps to $10,000 per individual and $20,000 per couple, up from $2,000 and $3,000, respectively.

In addition, beneficiaries would be allowed to earn up to $399 through work, and also take in up to $123 per month through other sources like Social Security or veterans benefits, among other changes.

An analysis from the Urban Institute found that proposed changes would help lift about 3.3 million people out of poverty, and cut the poverty rate among SSI recipients by more than half.

Those changes also come with higher costs. The Social Security Administration has estimated the proposal would increase SSI payments by about $510 billion from 2022 to 2030.

That could deter lawmakers from including the entire proposal as they work to reduce the total cost of the sweeping Democratic legislation.

Yet there is hope that some SSI changes could still make it in, according to Romig.

“The process is very fluid,” she said of current negotiations on Capitol Hill.

If lawmakers cannot adopt the whole SSI proposal, they may be able to tuck in some provisions.

“There are all kinds of ways to dial down the cost,” Romig said.

Not everyone is optimistic that SSI will make it into the final draft of the legislation.

In order to get SSI reform into the Build Back Better reconciliation bill, advocates will have to fight against every other Democratic priority lawmakers are trying to squeeze in, said Jason Fichtner, vice president and chief economist at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

“I think the chances of something happening this calendar year are very slim,” he said.

However, the current discourse helps to bring attention to SSI, which often gets lost in the shuffle, even though it is designed for the poorest of the poor, Fichtner said.

“From the advocate standpoint, this is a really good effort to start raising national attention to the problems with SSI and get it on the stage for when we start talking about Social Security reform in general,” Fichtner said.

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