Nearly 8.4 million poor and near-poor people in this country depend, at least in part, on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) benefits to make ends meet. Most are people under 65 who have severe disabilities, but roughly 2.1 million are seniors.
SSI benefits are extremely low — currently a maximum of $721 a month for individuals and $1,082 for couples, when both spouses qualify. They’re the only source of income for more than half the people who receive them.
This is one, though probably not the only reason that the poverty rate for working-age adults with disabilities is more than 16% higher than the rate for those without them.
It’s also probably one reason that nearly one in seven seniors lives in poverty, according to the Census Bureau’s latest Supplemental Poverty Measure report.
Bills introduced in Congress would improve the financial circumstances of many SSI recipients — and in several ways. They’d also enable more low-income seniors and people with disabilities to qualify.
The maximum benefit would still inch up annually, based on increases in the consumer price index the Social Security Administration uses.
But the bills, as their title suggests, would restore SSI by updating and then indexing to a consumer price measure the dollar amounts of three provisions that haven’t been adjusted for a very long time — in two cases, not since the program was created in 1972.
The bills would also wholly eliminate a provision that may deter friends and family members from lending a helping hand — and penalizes beneficiaries when they do.
Further explanation of some pretty complicated stuff.
Exclusions. SSI benefits are adjusted down from the maximum based on two types of income SSI recipients may receive. But in both cases, the adjustments begin only if the income exceeds a certain amount. This is known as an exclusion.
One exclusion applies to income earned from work. At this point, it’s $65 a month — about nine hours at the federal minimum wage. Any earnings above the amount reduce benefits at a rate of 50 cents for every dollar earned.
The proposed Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act would immediately raise this exclusion to $357, nearly restoring the value it originally had.*
It would thus also restore the incentive to work, when possible. So it would, among other things, encourage recipients to see whether they could “graduate” from SSI by engaging in substantial gainful activity.
The second exclusion applies to certain other types of income, e.g., retirement benefits, interest on savings or some combination thereof. It’s currently $20 a month. Anything more reduces benefits on a dollar-for-dollar basis. The bills would initially raise this exclusion to $110.
Assets. To become — or remain — eligible for SSI, a senior or severely disabled person can have no more than $2,000 in savings or other resources that could readily be converted to cash, e.g., a life insurance policy, heirloom jewelry (unless the recipient wears it). The asset limit for couples is $3,000.
Neither limit has been adjusted since 1989, when dollars went a whole lot further than they do now.
The very low limits pose significant problems. From one perspective, they exclude people who genuinely need the benefits. From another, they keep SSI recipients from saving enough to cope with all but the most minimal emergencies.
As a benefits coordinator at Bread for the City notes, moving costs alone may exceed the limit. So it can keep recipients stuck in housing they can’t afford — or perhaps in supportive housing they no longer need.
She also notes the perverse incentive to spend down savings, even on things not needed — and also to rapidly spend down the lump sum back-payments the SSI program frequently makes because the approval process tends to be slow.
The bills would increase the asset limits to $10,000 for an individual and $15,000 for a couple. Then, as I said, they would annually rise to preserve their real-money value — just as the exclusions would.
In-Kind Support and Maintenance. Some very complicated rules apply when recipients don’t pay the full costs of their food and shelter, with or without SNAP (food stamp) benefits and housing assistance.
Even the Social Security Administration finds the rules “cumbersome to administer” — and both burdensome and intrusive for recipients.
Basically, SSI benefits are reduced, up to a third, when recipients live with someone else and don’t pay their full share of food and housing costs. Exceptions here if the someone else is a spouse or the recipient a minor-age child.
But when the child turns 18, the benefit cuts kick in — and they come on top of any cuts due to income exceeding the exclusions.
Benefits are also reduced if, for example, a friend or relative pays a utility bill — or buys some groceries when, as so often happens, SNAP benefits run out before the end of the month.
The SSI Restoration Act would repeal this part of the law — and with it, the unintended undermining of what we like to think of as America’s family values.
I don’t suppose I need to tell you that the bills are going nowhere in this Congress. But perhaps they’ll spur some movement toward reforming a good program that sorely needs revisions to bring it into the 21st century.
* The value would have been fully restored, with a little extra if Congress had passed the SSI Restoration Act last year, when it was introduced in the House. This is also true for the general income exclusion.