How the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act Will Help the Disabled

August 12, 2021

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides need-based cash assistance to about eight million extremely poor, disabled, and elderly Americans. Congress intended SSI to protect people incapable of working and lacking assets and family support from dire poverty. SSI has strict disability standards and is an option of last resort. SSI was signed into law by President Richard Nixon in 1972 as part of a package of reform measures designed to bring Social Security up to date.  However, after a half-century of neglect by both parties, SSI now consigns millions to deep and enduring poverty, when it should instead offer a lifeline out of it. The average monthly SSI benefit in 2021 for a single individual is a meager $586 or $7,032 annually—far below the current Federal Poverty Level of $12,880.

At Nash Disability Law, we know all too well the heartbreaking outcomes that can result. Nash Attorney Bob Godnik recalls some of the cases he has seen firsthand: “I’ve had young clients who are very mentally disabled with no hope of ever obtaining gainful employment. Many of their parents confide in me how difficult it is for them to continue to support their children financially, and what terrifies them even more is what will happen to their kids when they are gone.”

“I’ve had moms who take time off to raise kids, middle-aged adults who take time off to care for their elderly or sick parents and others who left the workforce for good reasons,” Godnik adds. If they become ill or injured before going back, SSI may be the only disability program for which they qualify. Yet, you have to be penniless to be eligible and remain so to continue receiving benefits.”

A group of U.S. Senators want to improve the SSI program, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), Senator Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have re-introduced the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act to update this long-overlooked program administered by Social Security. “SSI benefits do not even reach the federal poverty line,” Senator Sanders points out. “And oppressive asset and income restrictions force those with disabilities to spend their lives in poverty. Enough is enough. It is time to expand SSI to ensure people with disabilities get the benefits they need.”

Here are the key provisions of the bill introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate:

  • Raise SSI’s monthly cash benefits to at least 100% of the federal poverty level and index benefits to inflation.
  • Currently to qualify for SSI, recipients are limited to assets of $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a couple. These limits haves not been updated since 1989 and are not indexed to inflation. The SSI Restoration Act would raise these limits to $10,000 for an individual and $20,000 for a couple and add an inflation index provision.
  • Increase the benefit for married couples to double the individual rate, which would eliminate the “marriage penalty” for SSI recipients.
  • At present, the amount of income a beneficiary is allowed to receive from other sources (such as a pension) without having their benefits reduced is astonishingly only $20. Under the SSI Restoration Act, individuals will be able to receive up to (a still modest) $128 a month from other sources without a loss in benefits. Individuals who can work will be able to earn up to $416 a month without being penalized.
  • Under SSI provisions, beneficiaries are slammed with benefit reductions or loss of eligibility if they receive in-kind help, such as groceries or a place to live, from family and friends. The new act would do away with this penalty.

Recent polling by Data for Progress in partnership with The Century Foundation found that more than 7 in 10 Americans support each of these proposed measures to update SSI.

As it is administered currently, the SSI program is appallingly broken. The program’s rules and requirements are so strict that they become barriers. They freeze out many of the people SSI was intended to help. It leads to homelessness, hunger, and illness among too many Americans with disabilities.

“I’m thrilled when we win SSI benefits for our clients,” says Attorney Godnik, “but it’s also heartbreaking knowing that these unlucky, deserving people will live the rest of their lives deep in poverty through no fault of their own. We must do something to help these unfortunate people at least reach the poverty line, let alone raise them out of poverty.” It is for these reasons that we at Nash Disability Law strongly support the modest and much-needed reforms of the SSI Restoration Act. Now is the time to take action and improve this critical program. We encourage you to share your opinions on the SSI Restoration Act with our congressional leaders. You can email them your thoughts through the website.