SSI Restoration Act 2021 EXPLAINED! | SSI Benefits Increase Coming?

Democratic leaders in Washington, D.C., have continued to tout a $3.5 trillion spending package aimed at helping to fight poverty. Yet, initial drafts have not included proposed reforms to enhance Supplemental Security Income, also known as SSI, that provides benefits to elderly, blind and disabled Americans. Still, advocates have not given up hope that the changes will make it into the package as part of ongoing negotiations. That includes Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown from Ohio, who in June led the reintroduction of a Senate proposal called the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act. According to Brown, “SSI has been forgotten by Washington for years — I am pushing my colleagues to make sure that doesn’t happen again this time. I’m fighting to secure updates to the program, and this reconciliation bill is our chance to get this done".

Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren from Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders from Vermont, are among the bill’s Democratic co-sponsors. Another version of the proposal has also been introduced in the House of Representatives by Representative Raul Grijalva from Arizona. The goal is to bring aspects of SSI — some of which have not been changed since the 1980s — up to date. In 2021, the maximum monthly SSI benefit is $794 per individual, or $1,191 per married couple where both individuals qualify for the program. Those benefits are altered every year with the annual cost-of-living adjustment set by the Social Security Administration. Still, those maximum benefit amounts remain below the federal poverty level. The Senate bill calls for raising monthly benefits to 100% of the federal poverty level — which would result in a 31% increase — and indexing them to inflation. In addition, it also calls for updating rules that have been in place for decades. Today, individuals can only have $2,000 in assets in order to qualify for the program, while married couples can have up to $3,000.Those thresholds have not been updated since 1989.

The Senate bill calls for updating those caps to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for couples. The bill also seeks to update SSI’s income rules, which have never been changed since the program was created in 1972.Currently, for every $2 someone earns over $65, they lose $1 of SSI benefits. According to Stacy Braverman Cloyd, director of policy and administrative advocacy at the National Organization of Social Security Claimants’ Representatives, “The people who receive SSI essentially get a 50% tax on their income above $65”.The Senate proposal would raise those income thresholds, so individuals will be able to earn up to $399 per month through work and take in up to $123 per month through other government benefits or pension income without having their SSI checks reduced. SSI beneficiaries would no longer be penalized for working or receiving gifts from friends or family. Moreover, married couples who are both on SSI would no longer take a benefit cut. About 8 million disabled or elderly Americans currently receive SSI benefits, including more than 1 million disabled children.

This bill would also allow for more people to qualify for benefits, according to an analysis of the proposal done by Social Security Administration Chief Actuary Stephen Goss. Goss estimates that in total, it would result in an increase of about $510 billion in SSI payments from 2022 through 2030.According to Karen Smith, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, “The amount of money it would take to just take these people out of poverty is very small as a share of the economy. The result would be substantial improvements in well-being for a group of people who do not expect to work and support themselves". Democrats see an opportunity to get the changes passed through reconciliation, which would require a simple majority vote in the Senate. Notably, while SSI can be changed in that process, Title II programs like Social Security retirement, survivor or disability benefits cannot be changed, due to a restriction known as the Byrd Rule.

According to Rebecca Vallas, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, “though SSI was not specifically named in the budget resolution proposal that was unveiled this week, there is a coalition of hundreds of disability and seniors’ groups continuing to fight for the change, in addition to a group of congressional Democrats. The only thing that would be more shameful than how long Congress has already forgotten about SSI would be to leave it behind yet again, when a rounding error in the reconciliation bill would change millions of disabled people’s and seniors’ lives”. As for when this bill could receive more attention, my opinion is that Congress will eventually be forced to take measures to address SSI, especially with the worsening concerns about the shrinking trust fund reserves used to pay beneficiaries.

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