Happy Birthday, SSI, Time for an Update

Last week an extremely important federal program that you have likely never heard of turned 43 years old. The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides modest, yet life-saving, cash assistance to 8 million seniors and people with disabilities with extremely limited income and resources. As important as the program is, as it grows older, it is in desperate need of an update to ensure its relevance.

You may not be familiar with the SSI program, but Dollie is. Dollie, whose story you can learn more about in this video, is a 73-year-old woman who relies completely on her SSI benefit to pay her rent, her medical co-pays, her grocery bill, her transportation costs, and all the other necessities of daily life. So you would expect that her SSI benefit would be enough to cover those basic expenses, and that it would at least be close to the federal poverty level, right?

Wrong. The federal monthly SSI benefit is just $721 a month for a single person, or 74 percent of the federal poverty level. In California, the state supplements the federal benefit raising the monthly amount Dollie receives to $877. So every month, Dollie must find a way to keep herself housed, clothed, fed and healthy on just $29 a day.

When President Nixon signed SSI into law in 1974 he said it would "mean a big step out of poverty and toward a life of dignity and independence" for people like Dollie who worked low wage jobs during their working years and therefore were unable to accumulate significant income or resources to support them as they age. But because the program has essentially not been updated over the years to keep pace with economic realities, it's more like a trap that keeps people in poverty.

The SSI resource limit provides a perfect example. Individuals can only qualify for benefits if they have less than $2,000 in assets, an amount that has only been increased by one-third since 1972 even though the cost of living today is more than five and a half times what it was in 1972.

So imagine you're living on SSI and through careful budgeting you manage to save up a little money to repair your car, buy a space heater for your bedroom, or purchase a winter coat. Now imagine that you receive a notice from the Social Security Administration telling you that not only are your benefits cut off, but that you owe the government several thousands of dollars in back payments because you had more than $2,000 in savings over a period of several months. With only slightly over $2,000 in savings and your income cut off, you're wondering how long it will be before you become homeless -- never mind being able to pay the government thousands of dollars. That's what happened to Reneto Wilkins in February 2012. He was on SSI and had been saving for some necessities and had been over the $2,000 resource limit without realizing he needed to stay under the limit to keep his benefits.

These stories, and others like them, point to an urgent need to pass the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act (S. 2089/H.R. 2016), which the National Senior Citizens Law Center championed and which more than 70 national and local organizations have endorsed. The bill was introduced in the House by Representative Grijalva (D-AZ 3rd District) and in the Senate by Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Many additional sponsors have joined the bill since introduction.

The Act would make several updates to the SSI program, which would restore its original purpose to lift seniors out of poverty, instead of locking them in. The bill would update the amount of modest outside income a senior could receive, increase the resource limit, and eliminate other harmful elements of the program.

On the program's 43rd birthday, it's time to restore it so that it can do the job it was meant to do. Let's deliver on that promise! It's more important than ever with a new Congress that seems committed to reducing programs like SSI that are crucial to the survival of poor people. You can help by contacting your Senators and Representatives and asking them to sign on as cosponsors of the bill.