Imagine if there were a program that would help older adults living in poverty meet their basic needs: pay for rent, buy groceries, and stay safe and warm. Imagine if this same solution also helped people with disabilities of all ages. Sounds pretty powerful, right?
You actually don’t have to stretch your imagination very far—this program already exists! It’s called Supplemental Security Income (or SSI) and it’s been helping to ameliorate the harms of poverty since its creation in 1972. This is a different program than Social Security (although it is administered by the SSA)—it’s “means tested” so you’re eligible to get a little help as an older person or a person with disabilities based on need, not on work history. One of the reasons you may not have heard of SSI is that the program needs some updates to live up to its true potential to greatly improve the lives of millions in poverty. The full monthly SSI benefit of $733 for eligible individuals is currently just 75% of the federal poverty level; certainly not enough for older adults and people with disabilities to meet their basic needs. Most people on SSI are people who can’t work and/or don’t have the work history to qualify for Social Security. And very few have access to other income, such as a pension; SSI is truly a safety net. But this safety net has not been updated for inflation and it has several outdated eligibility rules that threaten the income security of its recipients. For instance, as it is now, SSI recipients can’t save more than $2,000 in cash (or certain resources) and still be eligible. This limitation defeats the purpose of a safety net program as it prevents people from constructing their own safety net for emergencies such as car or home repairs. There’s also a strangely low limit on the amount recipients can receive from other sources, like a small Social Security benefit or pension, without having their SSI benefit reduced: only $20. Today, $20 dollars has the purchasing power of about $3 in 1972 dollars. To help wrap your head around this, imagine if the SSI program was designed today and lawmakers said, “SSI recipients ought to be able to receive their small pension or Social Security benefit without it ‘counting against’ their monthly SSI benefit because we want to reward their time in the workforce, not penalize it. Let’s have the first $3 received monthly not result in a corresponding loss in SSI benefits.” That’d be crazy, right? Let’s get SSI into the economic realities of 2015.
A few movers and shakers in Congress are concerned about the plight of low-income older Americans and people with disabilities. On May 19, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT), and Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) and several other co-sponsors introduced the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act of 2015 in both houses of Congress (SB 1387 and HR 2442). It’s the update we’ve been waiting for. Justice in Aging and more than 70 other national organizations have signed on in support of this crucial bill in the lives of millions of seniors and people with disabilities. You can help by telling your Senators and Representatives to sign on in support of the bill. Find your Senators and Representatives here and then look at their sites and see if they’ve supported the bill. If they have, thank them for their support using #RestoreSSI (or if they haven’t supported the bill, let them know that they should). Read more about the specifics of the Act and our work on economic security.