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WASHINGTON, D.C. – Today, U.S. Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH) chaired a hearing in the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy hearing, during which he emphasized the urgent need to bring Supplemental Security Income (SSI) into the 21st Century and include program updates the forthcoming reconciliation bill, ensuring disabled and elderly Ohioans are able to live with dignity. This was the first Senate hearing that specifically addressed SSI since 1998. The program’s key features, including benefit levels and eligibility rules, have not been updated since the 1980s, and in many cases, since the program’s 1972 inception. Updating the SSI program would improve the lives of older and disabled SSI beneficiaries and streamline SSA’s administration of overly complex and outdated program rules. Senator Brown has advocated for including these updates in the forthcoming reconciliation bill. Brown is the author and lead sponsor of the SSI Restoration Act, which would bring the program into the 21st century.

“Make no mistake: poverty in America is a policy choice. And it’s up to this Committee and this Congress to finally make a different choice,” said Chairman Brown at the subcommittee hearing. “There are millions of seniors and people with disabilities who are living in poverty right now, not because of their own choices – but because of ours.”

During the hearing Brown questioned Ms. Kathleen Romig – a Senior Policy Analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities – about the ways in which different types of SSI program functions, like asset limits, get in the way of long-term economic security.

Sen. Brown: Ms. Romig, we’ve heard today that SSI’s asset limits have been stuck at $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple for more than 30 years. What difference does having emergency savings make for low-income people and families when it comes to achieving economic stability?

Ms. Romig: These asset limits were set back in the 1970s, and we’ve learned a lot about poverty trends since then. And we know now that having adequate savings is a great way to keep people out of poverty. And when you think about it, it makes sense: if you can’t afford to weather an emergency, then you could get stuck in poverty. What if you don’t have enough money to repair your car? Then you lose transportation to your job. Another reason that savings are so important is to invest in your future. If you don’t have enough money to to do some additional job training, then you would miss out on work opportunities, as Mia’s (Ives-Rubble) testimony so eloquently described. We know now that keeping people below a level of savings literally traps them in poverty. And we know that now more than we did in the 1970s when those limits were set.

Sen. Brown: Are there specific types of resources that we should be excluding -- like retirement accounts -- if our goal is long-term economic security? What kinds of resources should be excluded from the asset limit calculation?

Ms. Romig: Well that’s another thing that’s changed a lot since the 1970s: SSI was signed into law in 1972. At that point, IRAs did not exist, 401Ks did not yet exist – both of those were established later in the 1970s. At that point, workers would typically receive a pension from their job and weren’t expected necessarily to save toward their own retirement. Now they are. The expectation has changed. But SSI continues to penalize people who save for their future and try to provide for their older years. So, other programs – other low income programs – including SNAP, exclude all retirement savings from their asset limits.

Sen. Brown: Your testimony notes that about half of eligible people are currently being left behind by SSI because the application process is so difficult to navigate. We’ve seen the program cratering to historic lows during the pandemic as evidence of something unusual. How concerned are you about these numbers and what do we do to ensure that eligible people are able to access this critical program in the time of most dire need?

Ms. Romig: it’s such an important question and I think the pandemic has brought some focus on a problem that has existed for decades. As you noted, during the pandemic, application and awards for SSI are down to historic lows. And that – we think – is not because the need is any less. In fact, the need is greater as people have been losing jobs and becoming sick and sometimes disabled for the long term. But, SSA’s field offices have remained closed to the public for the most part since March, 2020. This is a problem that predates all of that. Several studies have looked at who is eligible for the program. For example, SSA commissioned a study for an Institute of Medicine for children with mental health disabilities. It looked across six major diagnoses at low-income children who had significant disabilities, and whether they applied for the program. And they found that only half of the study even applied for the program. Another study on low-birthweight babies found only half applied. Another study that focused on adults found that only half applied. And then, among people who do apply, only four in ten are awarded benefits even after all levels of appeal. So, it’s very difficult to receive these benefits. And, Mr. Evangelista talked about some of the SSA’s efforts. I think they’re starting to take some steps to improve outreach. I think we need to do a lot in terms of simplification. It’s extraordinarily complicated to apply for SSI, particularly the disability program. I think often people need assistance – we’re talking about people with a lot of barriers. People who have cognitive impairments, people who might have limited education levels, people with language barriers. We need to really address all of these barriers that people have to applying, and give them the assistance they need in order to access the program. SSA has taken some first-steps to try to improve outreach, to try to simplify the program and to try to get the assistance that they need. W we need to do a lot more – because there are a lot of people who are entitled to these benefits who are not receiving them. And that’s just as much as a problem – if not more of a problem – than overpayments.

During the hearing Brown also questioned Ms. Mia Ives-Rublee – the director for the Disability Justice Initiative for the Center for American Progress – about her lived experience as an SSI recipient and what consequences of SSI’s sub-poverty benefit levels present for the disability community.

Sen. Brown: Ms. Ives-Rublee, you shared your lived experience of trying to make ends meet on SSI. $794, as you’ve pointed out, is not enough to live on. What are the consequences of SSI’s sub-poverty benefit levels for the disability community, and what would increasing benefits at least to the federal poverty level mean for people with disabilities?

Ms. Ives-Rublee: Having lived on SSI, I know personally that current SSI benefits are not enough to make ends meet. Disabled people, like any other individual, need to be able to pay rent, utilities, for food and clothing, transportation and all of the other things you need to survive. They also have the added expenses of medical cost, home modifications and other disability-related expenses. The National Disability Institute reported that it costs disabled people 28% more to live at the same standard as their peers. So, when we look at the average rental cost – in July, it was $1,466 and in August it was $1,633 – the max benefit of $794 would not event cover rent. That means that disabled people spend a good portion of their lives applying to other safety net programs including Section 8, SNAP and reduced utility programs. SSI beneficiaries are always living on the cusp of homelessness or institutionalization, causing significant stressors that can negatively affect the health outcomes and general wellbeing. Increasing the levels to at least poverty level would give many beneficiaries less to worry about and they could spend more time applying to other safety net programs and actually focusing on their health and stability.

Brown then questioned Ms. Elizabeth Curda – a Director in GAO’s Education, Workforce, and Income Security team – about whether she believed eliminating SSI’s so-called “in-kind maintenance and support” rules would reduce SSI underpayments and overpayments.

Sen. Brown: Ms. Curda, if we increased the asset limits and eliminated SSI’s so-called “in-kind maintenance and support” rules – which, as we’ve heard today, penalize some of the poorest SSI beneficiaries for receiving help from loved ones to make sure they have enough to eat and a roof over their heads – do you think that would reduce SSI underpayments and overpayments?

Ms. Curda: Sure, we haven’t done any work on this issue specifically, but it’s a mathematic truism that if you raise the threshold for income and earnings, fewer people would automatically be in an overpayment status. But there are some countervailing effects that you need to keep in mind. On the one hand, in the short run, fewer would be in the over/underpayment status. But, overall, the program costs are going to increase, because what was once an overpayment, subject to recovery, is now a program cost. In addition – to the extent that raising the limit expands the population of individuals who might be eligible for benefits – it might also increase the number of SSI recipients. And then, even after raising the limits, improper payments, over payments, under payments might all continue be an issue if the system for determining individual eligibility continues to work the same way, with benefits changing as earning or living arrangements change. They just may be occurring at a higher level.

Further background on Brown’s efforts to improve SSI:

Earlier this year, Brown led Senate Democrats in re-introducing the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act to update the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program and ensure disabled and elderly Ohioans are able to live with dignity. An often-forgotten part of America's Social Security system, SSI is a federal program that provides vital income assistance to nearly 8 million elderly and disabled Americans with low-incomes and limited resources, including over 1 million disabled children. But due to decades of shameful federal neglect, the program now consigns millions to deep and enduring poverty, when it should instead offer a lifeline out of it.

The SSI Restoration Act would:

  • Raise SSI's sub-poverty-level monthly benefits, currently $794 per month, to 100% of the federal poverty level--a 31% increase--and index them to inflation;
  • Update and index the assets individuals or couples may have up to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively. The current limit of $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple has not been updated since 1989;
  • Update and index SSI's income rules -- which have never been updated since the program was signed into law in 1972. These reforms will allow individuals to earn up to $399 a month from working, and up to $123 a month in assistance from other sources: including Social Security, veterans’ benefits, and pension payments without being subject to a benefit reduction.
  • These reforms will reward, not penalize, SSI recipients who want to earn additional income to provide for themselves and their families;
  • Eliminate the marriage penalty and increase the benefit for married couples to double the individual rate, to put marriage equality within reach for SSI beneficiaries; and
  • Eliminate benefit reductions that penalize beneficiaries who receive in-kind help from friends or family, such as groceries or a place to stay.

In April, Brown, along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), led colleagues in calling for the Biden administration to make historic and much-needed expansions and improvements to the SSI program as part of “building back better.” Several key elements of the SSI Restoration Act were endorsed by President Biden during the campaign. Right now, eligible individuals may receive a maximum benefit of $794 ($1,157 for couples) per month. The average current monthly benefit is $585 for individuals. For approximately 60% of recipients, SSI is their only source of income.