Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income program (SSI) is forcing millions to live in poverty, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) charged today.
Convening the first Senate hearing on SSI in the Senate Finance Committee since 1998, Brown asserted millions of disabled and older Americans are living well below the poverty line as the program’s eligibility rules haven’t been updated in decades:
“They’re punished if they try to save for an emergency.”
“They’re punished if they try to find a part-time job.”
“They’re punished if they accept food or shelter from generous family and community members.”
“They’re even punished if they’re married.”
Currently, SSI has 7.8 million beneficiaries including children, individuals with severe disabilities and low-income elderly. The average monthly payment in August was $586 for all individuals and $476 for those age 65 and over. The maximum monthly benefit of $794 was three-fourths of the federal poverty line.
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Brown told the hearing the SSI Restoration Act he introduced this year with 20 cosponsors increase SSI benefit levels to the federal poverty level, cut poverty among SSI beneficiaries in half and simplify and update the eligibility rules
SSI rules are creating hardships for informal caregivers as well as for the beneficiaries themselves, AARP contended in a letter for the hearing.
As an example, AARP noted SSI’s benefits may be reduced by one-third if a beneficiary lives in another person’s household and does not pay for all his or her food and shelter.
The group called on Congress to Congress modify SSI’s rules to support informal caregiving arrangements and eliminate the one-third reduction in benefits for recipients living in someone else’s household and not paying for food or shelter
Elizabeth Curda, Director, Education, Workforce, And Income Security
at the Government Accountability Office, said GAO has been complaining for years the Social Security Administration has faced challenges for years managing SSI, challenges that impact people in the program.
She noted that the SSI earnings offset effectively imposes a high marginal tax on work—$1 for every $2 earned, or 50 percent—that exceeds those of other federal assistance programs is a disincentive for beneficiaries to get jobs as is fear of having to pay back overpayments.
Overpayments, she explained,, can occur when beneficiaries who work do not timely report earnings to SSA or SSA delays in adjusting their benefit amounts.
SSI overpayments happen most frequently when beneficiaries’ savings rise above $2,000; when their wages exceed $65 in a month; and when they receive in-kind support from family and friends, said Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Senior Policy Analyst Kathleen Romig at the session.
As evidence of the difficulty the Social Security Administration has managing the program, she said SSI benefits make up only 5 percent of SSA payments, but it requires 35 percent of the agency’s budget to administer
An application to get on SSI can drag on people who want to get the benefits take years, Mia Ives-Rublee, Director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress said.
“Thousands of people die or go bankrupt every year waiting for disability benefits as a result. The current application process is so cumbersome, it’s often said that you need a law degree to access disability benefits,” said the activist.
She explained most individuals lucky enough to navigate the application process and be found eligible for benefits found they are unable to afford daily living expenses, even with SSI, because benefits are so low.
Ives-Rublee, a former SSI beneficiary, called policies for the program “archaic” with benefits are so low they cause real harm to those enrolled in the program.