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Federal benefits for old, blind, and disabled Americans have not been updated in years.
Now some lawmakers and advocates are pushing for changes to the program – called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI – as part of the legislation being promoted in Congress.
However, it is still unclear whether this will happen.
Proposed SSI reforms were not included in an initial budget proposal by the Democrats in the House of Representatives.
But this week a Senate Finance Subcommittee held its first hearing on the program since 1998, a sign that the Senate leadership, particularly Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Ron Wyden, D-Ore, will continue to fight for it .
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The hearing was chaired by Brown, who reintroduced the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act in June.
Hopes of a major SSI reform in the package, however, could be dashed as lawmakers work to cut the total cost of the Build Back Better package from $ 3.5 trillion.
However, there could be room for further incremental changes to the program, most of which has not been touched since 1972.
“The Senate should take the opportunity to incorporate some of these important SSI enhancements into Build Back Better legislation, even if the package cannot accommodate the full SSI Restoration Act,” said Kathleen Romig, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said during testimony at the hearing.
The SSI Restoration Act would refresh the program’s rules, many of which have been in place for years and are out of date, proponents argue.
SSI offers monthly performance reviews to low or no income Americans who are old, blind, or disabled. The money is used to support basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.
Around 8 million people – including adults, children with disabilities and the elderly – receive the benefits.
Some lawmakers and proponents say the benefits of the program are out of date and riddled with unfair rules.
The average monthly SSI payment is around $ 586, according to the Social Security Administration. The maximum benefit is $ 794 per month, which is 75% of the federal poverty line.
In addition, there are strict wealth limits, with a single beneficiary able to have up to $ 2,000 in savings. This has not changed since 1989.
There are several ways to reduce costs.
Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities
Beneficiaries are also subject to strict income limits. When they work, they can only keep up to $ 65 of their income each month. Income above this threshold will reduce benefits by $ 1 for every $ 2 of income.
While SSI beneficiaries can get other benefits, including Social Security, they can only keep $ 20 per month. If the benefits exceed this amount, your SSI benefits will be cut dollar for dollar.
The SSI accomplishments were labeled a “forgotten safety net,” during a 1987 House Ways and Means hearing, Brown said at the Senate subcommittee hearing this week.
“It was an apt title then, and given the decades of neglect that has struck millions of Americans, it would be an even more apt title today,” Brown said.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and senior member of the Senate Banking Committee, speaks at a hearing in Washington, DC on July 16, 2019.
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Brown’s proposed SSI Restoration Act would increase SSI benefits by 31% and bring them to the federal poverty line. It would also index these benefits to inflation.
The proposal would also increase the asset caps from $ 2,000 and $ 3,000, respectively, to $ 10,000 per person and $ 20,000 per couple.
In addition, beneficiaries are expected to earn up to $ 399 from work, including up to $ 123 per month from other sources such as social security or veteran benefits.
An analysis by the Urban Institute found that the proposed changes would help lift approximately 3.3 million people out of poverty and reduce the poverty rate among SSI recipients by more than half.
These changes are also associated with higher costs. The Social Security Administration estimates the proposal would increase SSI payments by about $ 510 billion from 2022 to 2030.
This could deter lawmakers from embracing the entire proposal while they work to bring down the overall cost of comprehensive democratic legislation.
However, there is hope that some SSI changes will still come through, Romig said.
“The process is very fluid,” she said of the ongoing negotiations on Capitol Hill.
If legislators cannot adopt the entire SSI proposal, they may be able to include some provisions.
“There are many ways to cut costs,” said Romig.
Not everyone is optimistic that SSI will make it into the final bill.
To incorporate SSI reform into the “Build Back Better” reconciliation law, advocates must fight any other priority democratic lawmakers trying to interfere, said Jason Fichtner, vice president and chief economist of the Bipartisan Policy Center.
“I think the chances of something happening this calendar year are very slim,” he said.
However, the current discourse helps to draw attention to SSI, which often gets lost in confusion, although it is intended for the poorest of the poor, said Fichtner.
“From the attorney’s point of view, this is a really good attempt to draw the nation’s attention to the issues with SSI and bring them to the stage when we talk about social security reform in general,” said Fichtner.