Bipartisan legislation could elevate SSI into the 21st century, encourage savings, and make life easier for people with disabilities
Eddie felt he had met the love of his life after meeting Jen, becoming her boyfriend, and eventually proposing marriage – she said yes.
But then reality – in the form of America’s antiquated SSI system – intruded.
Eddie, who lives in an adult foster home, has an Intellectual and Developmental Disorder. Jen has a spinal condition that requires 24-hour medical assistance. Both receive Supplemental Security Income benefits. Both say they could lose benefits, including SSI, if they got married because of punitive rules that disqualify single people or married couples if they earn too much or save too much.
“It would impact me greatly if I lost my benefits,” Eddie says. “I would have no money to live on…I would have no place to live [as the rental costs in my county are very high].”
Jen adds, “I would lose my Medicaid and have to pay out-of-pocket expenses for medical needs, and I don’t earn enough to pay out of pocket for medications or other medical equipment.”
The couple shared their story with The Arc, which has collected and disseminated stories about how regular, working Americans have been hurt by the punitive rules.
Eddie and Jen – who eventually decided not to pursue a legal marriage — are two of about 8 million Americans who face a quandary. That’s the number of Americans who receive SSI, which provides monthly payments primarily to the elderly, blind, and people with disabilities.
The problem is that the program has not been updated in about 40 years. Current rules state that individuals who have assets in excess of $2,000 may not qualify for SSI – for married couples, the limit is $3,000. These thresholds apply to resources like cash, bank accounts, savings, investments, and household goods (automobiles and homes are not counted towards the limit). SSI recipients who go over these limits can have their benefits terminated.
Critics say one reason (among many) why these limits represent terrible public policy is that they actively discourage people from saving money – a situation which not only hurts individuals but also is a drag on our nation’s economy.
“As Congress considers legislation to encourage retirement saving, it should correct one of the most regressive, anti-saving provisions in federal law by finally updating the woefully out-of-date asset limits in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program,” write the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, The Century Foundation, and the Bipartisan Policy Center in an op-ed published in The Hill. “Legislation enacted in 1984 raised the asset limits but didn’t automatically adjust them for inflation, leaving beneficiaries largely unable to save for an accident, unexpected repair bill or other expense – and completely unable to save for their future.”
The three groups note that had SSI’s limits been indexed to inflation since 1984, “they’d be more than twice as high as they are today. Had they been indexed since 1972, they’d be more than four times as high.”
Fortunately, help for people like Eddie and Jen just may be on its way. Bipartisan legislation filed in both the House and Senate would raise SSI asset limits to $10,000 for singles and $20,000 for married couples.
In the Senate, the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act (S.2767) is sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bill Cassidy (R-LA), Ron Wyden (D-OR), Susan Collins (R-ME), Bob Casey (D-Pa), James Lankford (R-OK), Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Mike Rounds (R-SD), Patty Murray (D-WA), and Lisa Murkowski (R-AK). Reps. Higgins (D-NY) and Fitzpatrick (R-PA) have 7 additional cosponsors on the House companion bill, H.R. 5408.
Earlier this week, the measure picked up the support of some unusual bedfellows.
During a Senate Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Committee hearing with many of the nation’s largest banking executives, all the executives were asked by Senator Brown if they would support the measure. Every executive said he or she would, according to a news release issued by Brown’s office.
As quoted in Brown’s release, JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon testified: “We have employees who don’t want us to increase their salary because if it goes over a certain amount they can’t get [the SSI] benefit, which they’re entitled to. Or, they can’t have assets over [$2,000], so it definitely should be fixed and we fully support it, and we’ll try to be as helpful as we can.”
Among the groups backing the bipartisan measure are the Coalition on Human Needs, AARP, The Arc, National Association of Evangelicals, Faith and Freedom Coalition, Jewish Federations of North America, Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, Justice in Aging, Prosperity Now, and Social Security Works.
As for Eddie and Jen: they’ve been advocating for years to change the SSI asset rule.
“It’s an unfair [rule] that has been around forever,” Eddie says. “We should be able to [get married and not worry about our benefits], just like everyone else. People don’t understand that people with disabilities are just like everyone else. We pay taxes, we work, [and] we contribute to society.”