Bill To Update Disability Benefits Wins Crucial Republican Co-sponsor

The Supplemental Security Income program hasn’t been changed in decades.

WASHINGTON — Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) has won a key Republican ally in his quest to improve one of the most outdated social welfare programs in the United States.

This week, Brown joined forces with Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) to announce their co-sponsorship of a bill updating the Supplemental Security Income program, which provides benefits to nearly 8 million Americans with disabilities.

The program pays less than $700 per month for the average recipient meeting its strict eligibility criteria, which include a requirement that recipients have less than $2,000 in their bank accounts. The Brown-Portman measure, called the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, would boost the asset limit from $2,000 to $10,000 for individuals and peg the limit to inflation.

In a statement, Portman noted that price inflation has particularly harmed low-income Americans.

“Yet the Supplemental Security Income program that serves these vulnerable populations hasn’t been updated in decades and punishes them for trying to save responsibly,” he said.

Steve Senti, a 62-year-old in Washington, Illinois, said he has received $737 per month in SSI payments since 2014. When he received stimulus checks for $1,200, $600 and $1,400 — which Congress authorized in response to the coronavirus pandemic — he rushed to get the money out of his bank account.

“I would have loved to have just left that money in the bank for an emergency or something,” Senti told HuffPost. “I ended up taking it out and spending it. I think I went to a bar and spent some of it on a poker machine.”

Under federal law, stimulus checks were not supposed to count toward the $2,000 limit, but legal aid attorneys said last year that the Social Security Administration mistakenly penalized some recipients for having more than $2,000.

If the Brown-Portman bill were enacted, it would be the first change to the asset rule since 1989.

“I would have loved to have just left that money in the bank for an emergency or something. I ended up taking it out and spending it.”

- Steve Senti, 62

Getting the change into law, however, will be no easy task. Brown attempted unsuccessfully to hitch the measure to a big social spending bill Democrats tried to write last year, but Democrats omitted the proposal even before the bill collapsed. Its $8 billion cost is relatively small, but not exactly chump change, given current attitudes toward spending on Capitol Hill.

Having a Republican on board makes passage a bit more plausible. Brown and Portman said they would try to attach their bill to bigger pieces of legislation Congress may pass in the coming weeks.

Portman suggested the measure would need to be approved first by the Senate Finance Committee, but said maybe it could catch a ride on a broader bill.

“I suppose that’s possible,” Portman said.

One reason Republicans might favor the change is that, as it stands, Supplemental Security Income’s asset limit has a “marriage penalty.” The asset limit is $2,000 for an individual and $3,000 for a married couple, meaning a disabled couple that isn’t married can have $1,000 more in their bank accounts than a married couple could.

“The marriage penalty in SSI is very clear,” Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), who asked about the penalty during a Senate Finance Committee hearing last year, told reporters on Wednesday.

The Brown-Portman bill would boost the limit to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for married couples, eliminating the marriage penalty. Lankford said he would need to see the bill’s text, but that he had been interested in addressing the penalty for years.

Brown has pushed to boost SSI’s meager benefits and limitations on earned income as part of a broader bill but said he would take what he can get in partnership with Portman.

“We do a lot of stuff together and we don’t agree on a lot of things,” Brown told HuffPost. “But this one is an important first step. It’s not nearly as much as I want to do ultimately, but we’ll take steps at a time.”

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