Congress Won't Lift Ban On Savings For People On Disability

A bill to change Supplemental Security Income’s strict asset limit had bipartisan support, but not enough to become law.

WASHINGTON — Lawmakers have decided not to change one of the federal government’s most outdated welfare rules as part of a government funding bill set to pass this week.

Disabled Americans receiving monthly benefits from the Supplemental Security Income program aren’t allowed to have more than $2,000 in savings or else the Social Security Administration docks their payments.

Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Rob Portman (R-Ohio) introduced a bill raising the asset limit to $10,000 for individuals and $20,000 for couples, but the measure has been omitted from end-of-year spending legislation that was its last chance to become law.

Sen. Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over the Social Security Administration, said the measure lacked broad bipartisan support, partly because lawmakers viewed it as opening a can of worms.

“It didn’t get into this deal because Social Security issues were not in this bill,” Crapo told HuffPost.

Brown, Portman and some like-minded colleagues first tried to attach the asset limit fix to a broader bill aimed at improving tax benefits for retirement savings, which the Finance Committee approved over the summer. They argued that if Congress wanted to enhance retirement security for people with tax-advantaged savings accounts, then it should let disabled people have balances of more than $2,000 without risking their monthly income.

Crapo and Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) didn’t want the amendment as part of the retirement bill, which wound up included in the year-end spending bill known as an omnibus. There was still a chance this week that the asset limit fix could catch a ride on the omnibus, too, but its $10 billion cost probably weighed it down in backroom negotiations.

Roughly 8 million Americans receive SSI benefits, which will max out at $914 per month next year. (It’s a separate program from Social Security Disability Insurance, which requires a work history and has higher monthly payments.)

Applicants for SSI benefits must agree to let the government check their bank accounts to make sure they’re poor and to tell the authorities if someone regularly gives them food. The rules haven’t been changed since 1989; if the asset limit had kept pace with inflation, it would be nearly $5,000 today.

Kathleen Romig, director of social security and disability policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank, said it’s a shame Congress will update retirement tax policies, but not a rule essentially prohibiting millions of poor people from saving money.

“The omission of SSI asset limits is particularly unfortunate since the bill expands egregious tax breaks for those near or in retirement, like letting wealthy people wait until 75 before they are even required to touch their tax-favored ‘retirement’ account,” Romig wrote Tuesday in a Twitter thread.

Republicans supported changing the asset limit because it’s stuck at $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples, meaning it’s an obvious “marriage penalty.” Most tax and welfare policies go double for couples.

“I think it’s a very Republican idea” to change the limit, Portman told HuffPost this week.

It’s not clear when Congress might revisit the matter. House Republicans generally favor making disability benefits less generous, not more.

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