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Being Poor is Hard Enough—Let’s Update SSI so People Have a Real Chance of Meeting Their Needs

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The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program turned 50 this October. It has lifted millions of older adults and people with disabilities out of poverty, but after 50 years, it’s time for a refresh. Right now, the program’s rules are so stringent and outdated that it’s no longer helping the people who most need it. There is momentum in Congress to make some important changes, but these changes won’t happen without your advocacy.

Imagine you’re a 72-year-old woman who spent some time when you were younger as a stay-at-home mom to three children. However, after a divorce, you worked part time as a housecleaner and occasionally in your cousin’s restaurants to earn money to keep the household going. When you reached retirement age, your Social Security benefits were relatively low due to your inconsistent work history and number of years staying at home with your children.

You receive a few hundred dollars in Social Security Retirement Benefits per month, plus Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, but together, at a maximum of approximately $860 per month, this doesn’t even bring you up to the poverty line. You live in a very old apartment where the rent has stayed somewhat lower because of the age and condition of the building. But the landlord is becoming abusive, and you’re worried he’s trying to push you out so that he can rent to a higher-paying tenant.

The job market is tight, but you’re in relatively good health, and there are “hiring” signs all over town so you consider getting a job in restaurant so that you can save up in case you need to move. If you do, your SSI benefit is reduced a dollar for every two dollars you earn over $65 a month. Even if this weren’t the case, you will also be penalized for saving “too much” money. In fact, your SSI benefits will be cut off entirely if you ever have more than $2,000 in the bank. You also have to be very careful when accepting help with food or rent from family members, because the program’s In-Kind Support and Maintenance Provision means your benefits can be reduced by one-third if you receive help from loved ones. 

Congress has been considering proposals to improve the program and allow you to make ends meet without having to worry about losing your benefits just because you try to improve your financial situation. For example, the SSA Savings Penalty Elimination Act would allow you to save up to $10,000 without fear of losing your benefits, making it easier for you to put away money for an emergency, or save for a security deposit to move to a new apartment.

Members of Congress need to know that you care about this program. Reach out and tell them that it is time to take a serious look at SSI and make changes to improve the program.

 

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