U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio announced recently that he’d like to update the Supplemental Security Income program that provides financial assistance to nearly 8 million seniors, including those that are blind and disabled. As chair of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy, Brown introduced a bill that will improve benefit levels that haven’t been updated since the 1980s. Brown is also currently attempting to incorporate parts of his proposal into the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that Congress will be considering in the next coming weeks.
Back when Congress first established SSI, it sought to assure that “aged, blind, and disabled people would no longer have to subsist on below-poverty-level incomes". Yet SSI’s maximum monthly benefit in 2021 is just $794 per month, equivalent to roughly three-quarters of the federal poverty level for an individual, while the average benefit in May 2021 was just $586 per month. As such, SSI benefits are not nearly enough to protect the program’s beneficiaries from poverty, nor are they adequate to ensure that beneficiaries can meet even basic needs. By comparison, the average fair market rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment in 2020 was $1,063 per month—equivalent to 134 percent of an SSI beneficiary’s monthly benefits. As such, President Biden and members of Congress have proposed to increase the monthly SSI benefit to at least 100 percent of the federal poverty level—which would push benefits up to $1,073 in 2021, an increase of more than one-third.
Part of these plans would also include indexing the federal benefit rate to inflation moving forward. Others such as Senator Bernie Sanders, have proposed to increase benefits even further, to 125 percent of the federal poverty level for an individual. Increasing SSI’s federal benefit rate to at least the federal poverty level would represent a significant improvement in millions of disabled peoples’ and seniors’ current economic situation, and would mean that the federal government would no longer force SSI beneficiaries to live in sub-poverty-level conditions. Brown remarked that a recent analysis by the Urban Institute found reforms in his bill would essentially lift 3.3 million people out of poverty. He noted that his bill is endorsed by groups such as AARP, AFL-CIO, and the National Women’s Law Center. Brown is currently working with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York on the bill, as well as Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon.
Wyden declares in the hearing that “It is time for a crucial update for a program that is so important,” and expressed support for Brown’s bill, while criticizing policies that cut the modest benefits of working young people with disabilities. Brown informed reporters that his bill would update asset limits and income rules, in order to compensate for inflation. He proposes raising the asset limit to $10,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a married couple, instead of the current $2,000 asset limit for an individual and $3,000 limit for a married couple. His bill would also allow people to earn up to $400 per month from jobs without affecting benefits, and would eliminate a benefit cut that occurs if two SSI beneficiaries decide to get married. Brown further states that he will try to “include as much of this as we can” in the upcoming $3.5 trillion spending package.
At a bare minimum, Brown says the package will include his proposal to raise the asset limit for SSI beneficiaries. According to Brown, “We want people to be able to get part-time jobs, if they can, and make a little money and save a little money. I hope sooner rather than later to raise the program to better than above the poverty line.... This was started to keep people out of poverty, but the amount of money isn’t nearly enough to keep people out of poverty. So the first step is the asset levels".