Democrats Could Give ‘Forgotten’ Disability Program A Fresh Look

Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) hopes the Supplemental Security Income program can sneak into the Democrats’ budget reconciliation bill.

This year may be Democrats’ last chance for a while to pass major legislation reducing hardship for many families and workers, and they have to make tough choices about which policies to leave out.

One proposal on the bubble is an update to the federal government’s main cash program for the poorest of the poor, one that has long been neglected by lawmakers in Washington.

The Supplemental Security Income program, known as SSI, provides cash assistance for nearly 8 million people who are blind or otherwise disabled and haven’t earned much money from working. But its benefits are meager, capped at $794 per month, and recipients can get kicked off if they accrue more than $2,000 in a bank account ― a rule that hasn’t been updated since 1989.

Brown is the lead sponsor of a bill to boost the benefits, lift the asset limit and make other changes to get more SSI recipients above the poverty line. The senator said he suspected it would “probably not” make it into the budget reconciliation bill Democrats plan to push through Congress later this year, but that he would try to make it happen.

“SSI has been forgotten by Washington for years,” Brown told HuffPost. “I am pushing my colleagues to make sure that doesn’t happen again this time.”

Democrats have said they will definitely include certain polices in the legislation, such as a continuation of the monthly child tax credit benefits that started last week. They have also talked a big game about expanding access to paid family leave, affordable child care and universal pre-K, but the actual scope of those proposals remains unclear, and at this point the bill exists only as a broad outline.

“We really haven’t started to negotiate the details yet,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) said.

The White House omitted SSI changes from its April summary of the package that Democrats intend to pass after Congress clears a bipartisan infrastructure bill. And an outline of the pending legislation that a Democratic aide on Capitol Hill circulated earlier this month also left out SSI.

“That’s actually something that we’re looking at,” Senate Budget Committee chair Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) told HuffPost this week.

Brown’s proposal would cost more than $500 billion over the course of a decade, which is a significant amount of money even in the context of a $3.5 trillion budget resolution. As Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) put it, “We have a lot of top priorities.”

But the budget could be Democrats’ last chance to enact big policy changes for years, since they have tiny majorities in the House and Senate and could lose control of either chamber in 2022. The reconciliation process, which allows Democrats to bypass Republicans and push legislation through the Senate with just 50 votes, is traditionally available only once per fiscal year.

It’s probably fair to say Washington has forgotten about SSI. The program’s $2,000 asset limit is so low that when last year’s stimulus payments landed in bank accounts, some recipients saw their monthly benefits reduced because they’d become too rich. The penalties resulted from administrative errors, since the payments weren’t supposed to count against eligibility for federal programs, but that’s only for a year, meaning anyone who saved their 2020 stimulus payments could be above the limit now. The average benefit is only $585, amounting to an annual income that’s below the federal poverty line for an individual.

“Right now is our best opportunity to right the wrongs of decades of neglect,” Brown said.

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