Lawmakers Must Invest in SSI to Promote Disability Justice

We are all better off when our lawmakers implement policies that accommodate the needs of people with disabilities. 31 years ago this week, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) provided critical protections for people with disabilities to access public spaces. The ADA has made my life easier, as someone with a disability, as well as those of parents using strollers, the elderly, and others who do and don’t have disabilities. In the upcoming economic recovery package, lawmakers have another opportunity to support people with disabilities through reforms to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program.

Our society doesn’t talk about disabilities a lot, rather people with disabilities are often pitied, feared, infantilized, or ignored. But the truth is, one in four adults in the U.S. have a disability and the rates increase as people age. When our economy is rooted in someone’s ability to work, many people with disabilities will fall through the cracks.

There is no one-size-fits-all policy when it comes to disability since people have varying abilities to work independently and different physical and mental capabilities. For example, my disability, cerebral palsy (CP), varies dramatically on a person-by-person basis. For some, it can be extremely physically limiting, and for others, it can be mild. On some days, my CP doesn’t impact my ability to move much at all. On other days, it hurts to stand up. On those days, I would never be able to work at a job where I’m expected to stand for long periods of time – like being a waitress, janitor, or cashier. If I did, my pain would get a lot worse.

When you have a disability that limits your ability to work, this can be a contributing factor to living in poverty. People with disabilities live in poverty at more than twice the rate of those without disabilities. Black people with disabilities face even higher likelihoods of living in poverty. Almost 40 percent of Black people with disabilities live in poverty, compared to 24 percent of white people with disabilities. This population faces double marginalization in their employment and education opportunities due to their disability and race. Sadly, our public benefits programs that are meant to provide income for folks who are deemed unable to work due to their disabilities are nowhere near the living costs that these individuals face.

SSI provides monthly cash payments to individuals who have severe disabilities and who have low incomes. The program also supports the elderly and some youth with disabilities who have low incomes. Yet SSI monthly benefits are currently only about 75 percent of the poverty line, meaning they aren’t enough to lift a recipient out of poverty. This is unacceptable -- people with disabilities should not be living in poverty, regardless of whether they work.

Disability justice means we recognize the contributions of people beyond whether they can work and their ability to live independently. Lawmakers should increase SSI benefits to at least 100 percent of the federal poverty line, eliminate the minuscule asset limit, remove the in-kind support and maintenance policy, and end the marriage penalty for SSI recipients. These changes would make the program more equitable and would promote economic security for individuals with disabilities, especially Black individuals with disabilities who face even higher rates of disability and poverty. Lawmakers should also invest in home and community-based services in the next recovery package to help people with disabilities live in their communities rather than in institutions.

People with disabilities are resilient, innovative, and strong, regardless of whether they can work. While the ADA was monumental in securing people with disabilities the ability to access public spaces, we still have a long way to go in ensuring that the disability community has equitable opportunity in our localities, states, and country. One essential step in achieving that vision is improving the SSI program.