Disabled workers, disabled widows and widowers, and disabled adult children—more than 13 million Americans—count on Social Security benefits to provide much-needed income to be able to live with dignity. They and their families are eager to know what newly inaugurated President Joe Biden‘s plans are for Social Security.
While President Biden is facing a huge list of priorities in his first days in office (with ending the COVID-19 pandemic at the top of the list), many political observers expect that soon he will turn his attention to Social Security—maybe even before this year is out. In the run up to the 2020 election, President Biden promised he would take on Social Security reform including programs to help the disabled. So what might that reform look like? On his campaign website, the president has offered these proposals:
“Increase the benefit level for people receiving SSI [Supplemental Security Income]. Biden would like Congress to amend the federal benefit rate to at least 100% of the poverty level.
Eliminate the five-month waiting period for SSDI [Social Security Disability Insurance] and two-year waiting period for Medicare. Biden will work to pass legislation to ensure working people who develop a condition or disability are able to get their Social Security support as well as their Medicare benefits as soon as they qualify.
Eliminate the ‘benefit cliff’ for SSDI. Earnings limits under SSDI can discourage people with disabilities from engaging in employment or internship opportunities when they depend on SSDI funds. Biden will increase this limit and phase out this benefit gradually so people with disabilities don’t have to choose between employment and health care.
Reform the SSI program so that it doesn’t limit beneficiaries’ freedom to marry, save, or live where they choose. Biden will work with Congress and the disability community to eliminate the SSI marriage penalty and “in-kind support and maintenance” provision and raise the asset limits associated with SSI that have not been increased since 1984.
Expand access to tax-advantaged savings accounts, ABLE accounts, which provide people with disabilities a way to pay for “qualified disability-related expenses, such as education, housing and transportation.” Biden will work to pass the ABLE Age Adjustment Act, which will make ABLE accounts available to 6 million additional adults with disabilities, including 1 million veterans.
Strengthen the Social Security Administration. Ensuring that Social Security benefits are easy to access and that field offices and teleservice centers are fully funded is key to our bedrock commitment to seniors and people with disabilities. Cutting Social Security services will only hurt the most vulnerable in our communities. Biden will provide sufficient resources for staffing needs to meet the needs of beneficiaries today and into the future.”
Biden also has ambitious plans to improve and expand Social Security benefits for retirees.
But a major concern that must be addressed is that Social Security funds are running low, even without the additional benefits. The latest official estimate from the Social Security Administration shows that due to a depletion of the trust funds, benefits may be cut by 21% by 2035. That estimate does not factor in the effects of the pandemic, which experts say could worsen the shortfall.
To bolster the trust fund’s resources and pay for higher benefits for disabled workers and retirees, Biden is calling for Social Security payroll taxes to be collected from those making $400,000 and up. In 2021, workers generally pay the 6.2% Social Security tax on up to $142,800 of wages. Under Biden’s plan earnings between $142,800 and $400,000 would not be subject to Social Security taxes at the outset, but the gap would eventually close over time.
Despite a Democratic majority in the House and Senate, there may be obstacles to getting major Social Security reform passed. Any reform package will require 60 votes in the Senate which means at least 10 Republican Senators will have to sign on. However, because Social Security is immensely popular with Americans (the number one favorite government program) it is almost certain that there will be pressure from constituents to fix and improve Social Security.