Lawmakers Should Increase SSI Asset Limits to Promote Equity and Economic Opportunity

Note: This blog was updated on September 25, 2023, to reflect the introduction on September 12, 2023, of the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act.

By Ashley Burnside

Members of the disability community often refer to July as Disability Pride Month to commemorate the signing of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) on July 26, 1990. The ADA was a landmark piece of legislation that provided many legal protections and accommodations for people with disabilities in public life. To celebrate Disability Pride Month, we should uplift the stories and resilience of the disability community, and we also must advocate for policy solutions to promote equity and economic justice for people with disabilities.

One of these policy solutions is for Congress to pass bipartisan legislation to update the asset limits in the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. The SSI program provides modest monthly benefits to people with disabilities and the elderly, but the program has rigid and outdated asset limits. A single person can only have $2,000 in assets to remain eligible for the program, and a couple can only have $3,000. The mandated low asset limits make it impossible for SSI recipients to accrue a level of savings that would provide economic stability without being pushed out of this critical program. The bipartisan SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act (S.2767) would raise the SSI asset limit to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for married couples and adjust the amount to inflation.

Disabled people face poverty at twice the rate of people without disabilities. This is due to numerous systemic factors, including but not limited to pervasive employment discrimination, the sub-minimum wage, the exorbitant additional costs that come with being disabled, a lack of access to comprehensive health care, and more.

Raising the SSI program asset limits would encourage recipients to build savings without the need to open separate bank accounts through ABLE accounts. (ABLE accounts allow eligible disabled people to save money that can be used for qualifying disability-related expenses, and the accounts aren’t counted in the asset limit.) For example, $2,000 in savings is not enough for someone to move to a new apartment. This is especially true given that most rentals require an upfront security deposit in addition to one month’s rent, as well as any costs needed for the move itself, such as hiring movers. This small amount of allowable money would decimate someone’s entire savings if they needed one unexpected car repair or hospital stay.

While the costs of essentials like groceries and rent have skyrocketed, the asset limit for SSI has remained frozen since 1989.

SSI exempts pensions from counting toward the program asset limits, which were much more common when lawmakers began the program in the 1970s. But retirement accounts provided through employment and individual retirement accounts (IRAs) do count toward the asset limit. These kinds of accounts have become the most popular option for retirement savings over the past few decades, but SSI program rules have not remained current with the present financial circumstances of Americans. SSI speaks to the economic realities of the 1970s, not the current day. And that leaves recipients with outdated rules that don’t meet the realities of today’s labor market.

Unfortunately, our social safety net does not provide much other support specifically for people with disabilities. The Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program is only available for people with disabilities if they have previously worked and paid into the program through their paychecks. Medicaid and Medicare provide essential health care coverage for people with disabilities, but not financial support for essential costs of living. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is available to people with disabilities, but benefits can only be used toward food and there is a significant amount of red tape for disabled people to navigate due to its time limit and work policy. The lack of a comprehensive safety net for disabled people, combined with the rising costs of goods, makes the efficiency of the SSI program even more urgent.

The SSI asset limits also make the program harder to administer for caseworkers and cost more money from the Social Security Administration budget. The limits can lead to the horrifying situation where an SSI recipient may be mistakenly overpaid because they didn’t realize they were a few dollars over the program asset limit, and then be forced to repay the government thousands of dollars that they likely do not have. Lawmakers have recognized that it is more effective for recipients and caseworkers to raise asset limits and have done so in other benefit programs like SNAP and Medicaid. Lawmakers should also raise the asset limits in the SSI program by passing the bipartisan SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, in addition to implementing other critical improvements to make the program more equitable for recipients with disabilities. During this Disability Pride Month, we must invest in the disabled community and fight poverty.