My parents celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year. Fifty years is a long time, and so much has changed—the internet, cell phones, self-driving cars, and we’ve seen so many disability rights victories. Next year, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program will also turn 50. But this milestone for SSI is almost disappointing because in those 50 years, the rules of SSI have barely changed. Passed in 1972, SSI was designed to keep the lowest income adults and children with disabilities and older adults from living in poverty. But Congress has ignored this crucial lifeline and failed to update it, instead leaving people with disabilities and older adults trapped in deep poverty, for fear of going over the limits and losing benefits. Rules that haven’t been updated in a half century govern how much money people who rely on SSI can earn, how married couples who receive the benefit are treated by the federal government, the amount of income the program provides, and how much help family and friends are allowed to give to loved ones on SSI. Rules about how much people can save haven’t been updated for almost 40 years!
SSI is supposed to fill in the gaps of other government support programs, paying for housing and other expenses that aren’t covered by Medicaid. But the current rules make that almost impossible. If someone is relying on SSI, the cost of renting a one-bedroom apartment almost anywhere in this country will consume more than the maximum monthly SSI payment of $794, leaving practically nothing for other expenses like groceries and other necessities. And limiting savings to only $2,000 means that many people cannot save enough to even move into an apartment or house. People can end up trapped in institutional settings, with no ability to afford an alternative. Like so many other parts of the disability service system, SSI is crucial infrastructure that is crumbling due to decades of neglect.
Nothing has made that clearer than the pandemic. With a maximum monthly SSI benefit of $794, people with disabilities are struggling to afford the necessities of pandemic life like masks, grocery delivery, and increased prices for so many basic goods. Restricted from saving more than $2,000, no SSI recipient could rely on their savings to get them through the past 17 months and the uncertainty that is ahead during this ongoing pandemic. Accepting help from family, friends, or mutual aid means a benefit cut. And because of marriage penalties, couples face an even harsher financial reality. Even the government’s COVID relief efforts created problems–stimulus checks and unemployment insurance expansions created eligibility issues because the systems used to implement these rules are equally archaic, unable to adjust to new benefits. For the millions of people with disabilities who are eligible for Medicaid because they are eligible for SSI, this was not only an issue with income security, but also put their access to health care and home and community-based services (HCBS) at risk.
Just as the pandemic highlights the need to expand HCBS and finally address the workforce crisis for direct care workers, it also shows us that the program that is supposed to pay for everything else is trapping people with disabilities in poverty. Enough is enough. We must fix these archaic SSI rules.
President Biden acknowledge the need for change during the presidential campaign, calling for five major reforms to the SSI system:
1) increasing benefits to at least the federal poverty line
2) increasing income limits to encourage work
3) eliminating harmful rules penalizing help from family and friends
4) eliminating marriage penalties
5) increasing asset limits
Any one of these changes would dramatically improve the lives of the 8 million people who rely on SSI, including almost 1 million children with disabilities. It would help ensure that people with disabilities can live with their families and friends in their own communities, with the supports they need.
We have a rare opportunity – right now – to fix the crumbling disability service system by fixing SSI, expanding HCBS, and passing a national paid leave program. We must act on this opportunity!
50 years is a long time. Just ask my parents.