It’s Time to Update and Strengthen Supplemental Security Income

By Lavanya Mohan

There is widespread agreement in America that individuals who have severe disabilities that prevent them from working should not be left destitute as a result. We have a program, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), that is supposed to ensure that is the case.  And indeed, SSI provides desperately needed income support to more than 8 million Americans, who receive an average payment of $517.20 per month. However, SSI’s income exclusions and asset limit guidelines have not been adjusted for inflation in decades. These outdated standards undermine our commitment to keep these most vulnerable individuals out of poverty.

In a recent hill briefing on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Mr. Reneto Wilkins shared his story that illustrates this problem: last year, the Social Security Administration (SSA) suspended his SSI benefits because he had $3,500 in his savings account. A frugal man, Mr. Wilkins did not have a winter coat or a bed because he was trying to use his benefits prudently (to pay for basic necessities such as food and shelter). He didn’t think he was breaking SSI program rules by saving money. However, because the SSI asset rule limits recipients to having no more than $2,000 in financial resources, Mr. Wilkins’ SSI benefits were suspended. As a lifelong DC resident living with HIV/AIDS and schizophrenia for the past 30 years and unable to work because of his cognitive impairment and severe memory loss, the suspension of SSI left Mr. Wilkins with no other form of income.   

As research shows, savings can help low-income families and individuals build personal safety nets to protect themselves from unforeseen financial risk and hardship. Limiting the ability of low-income people to build assets weakens the opportunity for upward mobility out of poverty.

The SSI asset limits prohibit individuals and families from saving for emergencies such as large unforeseen health care expenses. Additionally, current SSI rules exclude only the first $20 of monthly income when determining eligibility. Further, SSI benefits are severely reduced if an SSI recipient receives in-kind support for basic necessities such as food and/or housing, even when the support is provided by a family member.

 To address the challenges of outdated SSI resource guidelines, in-kind support limits and income exemptions, Congressman Grijalva (D-AZ) has introduced H.R. 1601: The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act of 2013. The bill proposes to:

  • update the resource limit from $2,000 to current cost-of-living standards of $10,000 for individuals and $15,000 for an eligible couple;
  • update the general income disregard from $20/month to $110/month;
  • update the earned income disregard from $65/month to $357/month;
  • repeal the in-kind support and maintenance provision so that family members can provide support such as in-kind food and/or shelter to SSI recipients; and
  • repeal the 1999 penalty for transferring resources which has caused further hardship for low-income recipients.

CLASP supports efforts to strengthen the SSI program to assist vulnerable populations in meeting their basic needs. The updates proposed by the SSI Restoration Act of 2013 will provide a more secure safety net for low-income families and individuals.