When Congress introduced Supplemental Security Income in 1972, it left no doubt as to its intentions. The program, as the legislators wrote, was “designed to offer a positive assurance that the old, blind and disabled people of the country no longer have to live on an income below the poverty line”.
Today it helps ensure the opposite.
The maximum annual benefit is $ 9,528, three-quarters of the state poverty line. Payments decrease when recipients have more than $ 85 in foreign income per month and are withdrawn when they exceed $ 2,000 in savings. There are penalties for accepting food or even housing in front of loved ones. The result is that it is structurally difficult to obtain SSI and not to live in poverty.
The postponement came over nearly five decades during which Congress made no material changes to the program, which is run by the Social Security Agency and serves about eight million Americans. The outer income limits, for example, have never been adjusted for inflation.
Now that the Democrats are working out the details of trillions of dollars in spending they want to bring in without Republican support through budget balancing, SSI beneficiaries and supporters see a rare opportunity to revise the program.
It is far from a guarantee. Just this Wednesday, Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, said she would not support the full $ 3.5 trillion package proposed by top members of her party – because of her support and that of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia The decisive factor is what is cut out of the package and what is left in it depends on what the two are willing to accept.
Whether changes to SSI are ultimately included in the invoice may depend on their cost. Republicans and some moderate Democrats have expressed concern over the passage of a reconciliation bill that would increase the deficit, and if the package had to be cut to win 50 votes, a multitude of proposals – on education, health care, climate change and much more – will compete for the remaining dollars.
But “there is an opportunity,” said Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, MP in a virtual forum with supporters last week, calling the current state of the SSI program “a national scandal” and calling on supporters to call the White House and calling Congress executives “every day”.
Mr Bowman is a sponsor of the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act, which advocates want to include in the Atonement Act, which the Chief Social Security Actuary estimates would cost $ 46 billion in 2022 and $ 510 billion over the next decade. Among other things, it would raise SSI payments to the federal poverty line and index them to inflation; allow more than $ 500 per month in external income with no penalty; Increase in asset limit to $ 10,000; and remove penalties for in-kind assistance, such as a friend who offers shelter.
In some ways, the bill is just another example of a measure that stopped being a non-starter when the Democrats took control. But it is also the culmination of years of work by people with disabilities trying to establish themselves as a constituency capable of influencing elections and making demands on elected officials.
“We agitated from within, but it was outside groups that really got it on the mainstream Democratic agenda,” said Senator Sherrod Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, who has worked with MP Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, for years. the SSI legislation supports others. “They were less active than a Republican Senate and a President like Trump because they knew there wasn’t much at the end of the rainbow.”
The inclusion of the SSI measure in the budget reconciliation account is by no means certain. There were, however, palpable signs of momentum.
Last month, advocacy groups helped organize the first two-chamber briefing on SSI – essentially a presentation to congress staff – for more than 30 years. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has included a revision of the SSI in a draft list of Democratic priorities. Bowman said he had spoken to White House officials and that “all signs indicate support for the president”.
The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment, but President Biden campaigned for changes to SSI without which “I don’t think what we saw on the hill would have been possible,” said Matthew Cortland, senior Fellow at Data for Progress and leading a campaign called #DemolishDisabledPoverty, which includes the SSI push.
Other factors could be the oversized impact of the pandemic on disabled and aging Americans and growing collaboration among proponents of these groups.
Rebecca Vallas, Senior Fellow at Century Foundation and director of #DemolishDisabledPoverty, called the current move “the logical next step from what we saw in 2017 and 2018 when the disabled community and senior community came together to fight in lockstep.” to protect the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid. “
A Century Foundation / Data for Progress poll in May found bipartisan support for increasing SSI payments to the poverty line (91 percent support for the Democrats, 70 percent for the Republicans, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points).
The Republicans have remained largely silent on the SSI proposal in particular, although they strongly oppose the general law of reconciliation. During the Trump administration, the White House proposed a budget that would cut about $ 8 billion in SSI benefits for children in households where another family member was also receiving SSI, arguing that the shared resources of one Family cost less than if each and every family member had to support themselves.
Aside from organizers such as Ms. Vallas and Mr. Cortland, themselves former SSI recipients, many current beneficiaries have started talking about how the program’s limitations are affecting them.
Felix Guzman, an SSI recipient with autism and schizoaffective disorder, said higher payments could cover speech therapy or communication devices for his 7-year-old son, who is autistic and non-verbal.
“The difference between waiting a month to two months for an article that could help them communicate can make the difference in whether or not they hit a disability milestone,” said Guzman, 39.
Other recipients say they are unable to do meaningful work because it could cost their SSI and accompanying Medicaid coverage without providing enough income or insurance to compensate. Some want to test their ability to keep a job, but they don’t want to risk having nothing to fall back on if they can’t.
“It can be very difficult to get your SSI or Medicaid back if you lose these benefits,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, the director of the Disability Accessibility Initiative at the Center for American Progress, who uses a wheelchair and relies on SSI in the University. “Balancing your health needs with your willingness and ability to work is a real trap.”
The program also discourages many recipients from getting married because a spouse’s assets – even a few thousand dollars in a retirement account – would count towards the asset limit ($ 2,000 for individuals and $ 3,000 for couples).
“The amount of benefits we lose is thousands – a normal spouse can’t afford that,” said one disabled SSI recipient. “Most of us, including me, don’t get married because I was literally going to die. I would lose everything. “
Once, this recipient said she was too sick to leave home for two months, and as her daily expenses fell, her account balance went from just under $ 2,000 to $ 2,135 without her realizing it. When the Social Security Agency found out about this, they had to repay all of their SSI benefit for those months, which lasted two years.
The organizers of #DemolishDisabledPoverty also want Congress to increase funding for home and community-based services; Abolish a law that allows companies to pay some disabled workers far less than the minimum wage; and update Social Security Disability Insurance or SSDI which is different from SSI but has many similar limitations.
Melanie Waldman, 30, who suffers from lupus, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and an amputated arm, has been unemployed since she left a job that “destroyed my body”. She receives about $ 800 a month from SSDI
She has a background in theater and said she wanted to pursue roles but would have to ask for a lower salary. She is allowed to make $ 10,000 a year in external income and, prior to joining SSDI, earned about $ 13,000 from acting. Although SSDI pays less, she cannot afford to lose it as it would mean loss of health care.
Mr Cortland said the current legislative initiative is focused on SSI because it can be changed through budget reconciliation while SSDI cannot legally. But he stressed on the virtual forum last week that proponents would also be working to improve SSDI
The forum, organized by the Century Foundation, was attended by Mr. Bowman and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Massachusetts Democrat, who both urged the 17,000 or so audience to put pressure on Congress and the White House.
“I know I preach to the choir, and as the granddaughter of a Baptist minister there is a reason for that,” Ms. Pressley said. “Because I need the choir to sing.”