Opinion Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.
Maintaining financial independence and self-sufficiency remains a constant struggle for the elderly and people living with disabilities in the United States. Today, people with disabilities and many seniors struggle to meet their basic needs—including making rent and attending to their treatment to survive. The government is supposed to be there to help. That’s what it’s for.
The Supplemental Security Income, or SSI program, a critical safety-net program for these populations, supports nearly 8 million people with disabilities and older Americans. Yet the often-forgotten federal program is insufficient and grossly underfunded. SSI doles out just $794 a month to beneficiaries—if an applicant can get their case reviewed in a reasonable time frame to qualify, because it sometimes takes up to six months to receive approval. For those who do, the needs-based benefit has not kept up with today’s cost of living—the income conditions haven’t been updated since the program was started in 1972.
Giving beneficiaries just under $800 a month, or $9,528 annually, amounts to an income of about three-quarters of the federal poverty line. Furthermore, if you receive SSI and marry another SSI beneficiary, you share a benefit of $14,293.61, just 50% more than if you were single. Many elderly couples would be financially better off getting divorced than remaining married.
SSI beneficiaries also must have assets of less than $2,000 for an individual, or $3,000 for a couple. These outdated limits would disqualify anyone from the program who has even modest savings. Those limits were last updated in 1989.
The beneficiaries should not be penalized for working, getting married, or keeping a reasonable amount of savings for a rainy day or retirement. They should at least be able to live above the poverty line and maintain $10,000 in savings. But all these situations diminish or eliminate entirely the already paltry sum distributed to people in need.
Democratic members of Congress and the Biden administration must listen to advocates and leading lawmakers to restructure SSI as they finalize negotiations relevant to pieces of the Democrats’ Build Back Better priorities this fall. As a part of this effort, the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package is said to be a long overdue once-in-a-generation legislative push to both address investments to stave off the climate crisis as well as support working families to get by and thrive in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike other safety-net programs, however, SSI has not been updated. The program has not kept pace with inflation. Despite the cost of living increasing dramatically since the 1970s, the program’s asset and income limits force beneficiaries to remain poor, ensuring that people with disabilities are consigned to a life of poverty instead of being able to find fulfillment through part- or full-time wage work.
President Biden promised to update and reform SSI during his presidential campaign. In April, Democratic U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and freshman Democratic U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York sent a letter, co-signed by 18 senators and 33 House members, urging Biden to prioritize reform of the Supplemental Security Income program.
Their proposal would bring the SSI benefit up to the federal poverty line, increase the asset limits to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for couples, update the income rules, and eliminate the marriage penalty and rules that hurt beneficiaries for giving any “in-kind” support.
Reforming SSI is popular among the American public and even Republicans, which should make it easier for moderates in the U.S. Senate such as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema to sign on. Influential national groups also are on board for reform, including the AFL-CIO, the United Auto Workers, AARP, and the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities.
Any holdup for reform centers on cost and timing. You might ask why lawmakers can’t come together on this issue outside of the infrastructure proposals moving through Congress now. Unfortunately, the budget reconciliation process appears to be the only major vehicle for policy change in Washington these days, and it requires only a majority vote in the Senate for passage. Despite widespread bipartisan support, SSI reform proposals have not had the votes to pass as a standalone bill.
Partisanship is seemingly at an all-time high, with Republicans more invested in shoring up their power and paying lip service to efforts that support social mobility and helping everyday Americans. Their concerns over the cost of this proposal and others remain insincere, because they had no issue with deficits and federal spending when it came to tax cuts for the super-rich and coddling corporate interests, despite many in their base asking for help from the government.
To be sure, in the spirit of President Trump’s influence on the American right, Republicans have had their share of populists and leaders who cite interest in supporting America’s working class and poor, but that has not translated to real policy reforms when they held power. Indeed, Republican-led states continue to cut temporary unemployment insurance boosts and cut Medicaid, America’s safety-net health insurance program for the low-income and people with disabilities.
The Democrat-led reconciliation package might be the only near-term chance to dismantle and replace a system that forces people with disabilities and the elderly into poverty to qualify for government benefits.
The pandemic has laid bare the fragile nature of America’s social safety net and the inequities in the American economy. While billionaires made record profits during the pandemic and spent that money to fly into space, the American people are struggling. That’s after historic efforts to help the people during the pandemic, encouraging them to stay in their homes and receive billions in government checks. And yet those with disabilities and the elderly have had to witness the challenges of surviving this pandemic like everyone else, while simultaneously navigating an antiquated system that punishes them for seeking fulfillment through work, love, or even just receiving a nice gift or taking a vacation.
Decades of promises and sympathy for SSI reform must end. Democrats must prioritize SSI reform in their efforts to rebuild America and help more families get a fighting chance to thrive.
Vijay Das is a writer, advocate, and senior adviser for Data for Progress. He previously was a health policy fellow in the United States Senate. He often writes on health and economic justice issues.