WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, wants to update the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program that provides financial assistance to nearly 8 million seniors and people who are blind and and those who have disabilities.

As chair of the Senate Finance Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions and Family Policy, he has introduced a bill that will improve benefit levels that haven’t been updated since the 1980s and stop punishing the program’s participants for getting part-time jobs, marrying and saving for the future. He says he’s trying to incorporate parts of his proposal into the $3.5 trillion reconciliation package that Congress will consider in upcoming weeks.

Brown said 300,000 Ohioans are SSI beneficiaries. Their average monthly benefit is $585, which comes out to about $7,000 each year. The most they can get is $794 a month, which works out to far less than the minimum wage. According to Brown, SSI is the sole income source for 60% of its beneficiaries.

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“The program’s eligibility rules literally haven’t been updated in decades in many cases, not even for inflation,” Brown said at a subcommittee hearing this week on the matter. “They force millions of disabled and older Americans to live well below the poverty line and punish them for any of their own efforts to build a little financial security … It sends a pretty absurd message … SSI’s outdated rules make it impossible for beneficiaries to live with dignity.”

Brown said a recent analysis by the Urban Institute found reforms in his bill would lift 3.3 million people out of poverty. He noted that his bill is endorsed by groups as diverse as AARP, AFL-CIO, and the National Women’s Law Center and said he’s working with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer of New York on the bill, as well as Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden of Oregon.

“It is time for a crucial update for a program that is so important,” Wyden declared at the hearing, expressing support for Brown’s bill and criticizing policies that cut the modest benefits of young people with disabilities who try to work and make an income.

The top Republican on Brown’s subcommittee, Indiana’s Todd Young, agreed the program’s effectiveness needed to be reviewed but cautioned “we can’t spend more and hope it helps.” He said it was designed to be a “program of last resort.” Although it was initially created to assist elderly low-income people, Young said its primary beneficiaries now are non-elderly adults with disabilities and children, and he said the nation’s social safety net programs need to be put on more solid financial footing.

“If we don’t act now, the trust funds and these programs will be exhausted leading to significant benefit cuts,” said Young.

Stephen Evangelista, the Social Security Administration’s acting deputy commissioner for retirement and disability policy said the federal government expects to pay around $56 billion in federal SSI benefits this year. He described it as “a vital lifeline that enables beneficiaries to meet their basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter.”

The maximum federal monthly benefit amount in 2021 is $794 for individuals (about 75% of the federal, individual poverty line) and $1,191 for couples where both individuals are eligible for the program, Evangelista testified.

Mia Ives-Rublee, who heads the Center for American Progress’ disability justice initiative, said many people who rely on SSI to keep a roof over their heads continue to struggle with “daily living expenses and outdated rules due to the fact that the program has had few updates since its creation in 1972.” She said it was difficult for her to find jobs after she graduated from high school because she uses a wheelchair. She relied on the program to make ends meet as she pursued an education so she could get a job, but she said she “got in trouble several times for earning small stipends — just a few hundred dollars over three months — for working at summer camps” and wasn’t allowed to accumulate any savings for fear of hitting the program’s $2,000 asset limit.

After getting a job at the North Carolina Division of Vocational Rehabilitation Services, Ives-Rublee spent six years trying to help clients navigate the cumbersome benefit application system. She said benefit approvals can take anywhere from several months to several years, and “thousands of people die or go bankrupt every year waiting for disability benefits as a result.”

“Current SSI policies are archaic, and benefits are too low, which causes real harm to beneficiaries,” she told the committee. “While the program used to be the most successful anti-poverty program for disabled people, it now forces and traps disabled people into poverty. Many of these individuals have no other options to support themselves, which forces them into perpetual evictions and instability.”

Dorothy Gackstetter joined Brown on a call this week with reporters to describe how the rising value of an insurance policy bought decades ago for her 66-year-old son Scott who has a disability ended up reducing his SSI benefits by $50 each month. She said the SSI money provides the family with critical help in paying for some of Scott’s medicines and other needs.

Brown told reporters his bill would update asset limits and income rules to compensate for inflation. He proposes raising the asset limit to $10,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a married couple, instead of the current $2,000 asset limit for an individual and $3,000 limit for a married couple. His bill would also allow people to earn up to $400 per month from jobs without affecting benefits, and it would eliminate a benefit cut that happens now if two SSI beneficiaries marry.

Brown said he will try to “include as much of this as we can” in the upcoming $3.5 trillion spending package. At minimum, Brown says the package will include his proposal to raise the asset limit for SSI beneficiaries.

“We want people to be able to get part-time jobs, if they can, and make a little money and safe a little money,” said Brown. “I hope sooner rather than later to raise the program to better than above the poverty line … This was started to keep people out of poverty, but the amount of money isn’t nearly enough to keep people out of poverty. So the first step is the asset levels.”

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