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Bowman, Sanders Lead Coalition Demanding 'Desperately Needed' Boost to SSI Lifeline

"People with disabilities and older adults receiving SSI represent some of the most marginalized members of our society. History will not forgive us if we fail to address their needs."

A woman waits to be tested for Covid-19 outside the Catherine Hardaway Residences in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston on July 8, 2020.

A woman waits to be tested for Covid-19 outside the Catherine Hardaway Residences in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston on July 8, 2020. (Photo: Craig F. Walker/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

A bicameral group of dozens of lawmakers led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and other prominent progressives sent a letter Monday urging President Joe Biden to include "desperately needed" improvements to the Supplemental Security Income program in his forthcoming American Families Plan, which is expected to focus on child care and other key domestic priorities.

Bolstering SSI—a lifeline for around eight million elderly Americans and people with disabilities—should be among those priorities, the lawmakers argue in their letter (pdf), noting that the program's beneficiaries "are all too frequently left behind."

"This would help to ensure that eight million of our most vulnerable can escape the cycle of poverty."
—Rep. Jamaal Bowman

"People with disabilities and older adults receiving SSI represent some of the most marginalized members of our society. History will not forgive us if we fail to address their needs in the recovery effort," reads the letter, which was also signed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio), and Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.).

Pointing out that SSI's monthly maximum benefit level is currently just $794 for individuals—well below the federal poverty line—the lawmakers call on Biden to propose raising payments to "at least 100% of the federal poverty line," a change that would provide hundreds of dollars in additional benefits per month to the program's most vulnerable recipients.

The letter also presses Biden to increase SSI's stringent asset limit and index it to inflation in the future. At present, the lawmakers point out, eligibility for SSI is restricted to individuals with no more than $2,000 in "countable resources"—a limit that has not been updated since 1984 despite soaring costs of living.

"Because this limit is not indexed to inflation, it grows steadily more draconian each year," the lawmakers write. "Lifting this asset cap is long overdue and is also consistent with your campaign commitments."

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The lawmakers additionally call for an update to the amount of income SSI recipients are able to earn per month and still be eligible for the program, as well as an end to rules that reduce benefits for those who receive assistance—including food and shelter—from friends or family members.

"These reforms are not only consistent with the imperatives of disability and economic equality. They would also advance racial justice," the letter states. "Nearly 1 in 4 Black and Hispanic Americans receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI )benefits also receive SSI payments, due to the low level of their disability insurance awards. By strengthening the SSI program, you will be taking strong and necessary steps to alleviate poverty that disproportionately impacts disabled people of color."

The letter came as details of Biden's American Families Plan began to emerge Monday, with the Washington Post reporting that the package is expected to call for "roughly $225 billion for child-care funding; $225 billion for paid family and medical leave; $200 billion for universal prekindergarten instruction; hundreds of billions in education funding, including tuition-free community colleges across the country; and other sums for nutritional assistance."

"The measure is expected to be largely if not fully paid for with new tax increases centered on upper-income Americans and wealthy investors," the Post noted. "The details of those tax measures remained unclear."

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