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Florida, Sebring, Social Security Administration, federal government agency. (Photo by: Jeffrey Greenberg/Education Images/Universal Images/Getty Images)

Moving From Neglect to Dignity in the S.S.I. Program

Its sub-poverty level payment and nearly 50-year-old punitive means test provisions have meant increasing homelessness among the S.S.I. elderly.

Jonathan M. SteinChi-Ser Tran

What program within our Social Security system that serves the low-income disabled and elderly has received half a century of neglect from both parties and whoever has occupied the White House?

It's no contest that it has been the Supplemental Security Income ("S.S.I.") program. Signed into law by President Nixon in 1972, S.S.I. is a modest but vital source of subsistence income for about 8 million of the nation's poorest seniors and people with disabilities, including over 1 million children with severe disabilities.

The S.S.I. Restoration Act, and efforts underway in Congress to incorporate it into the upcoming Reconciliation budget bill, offers some hope in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to update and improve the program.

Although the maximum monthly benefit for S.S.I. recipients is $794, three-quarters of the federal poverty level, the average payment of $585 a month is about half of the poverty level. This $585 amount is due in part to the fact that many S.S.I. beneficiaries, because of the sub-poverty payment amount, cannot afford their own apartment or house and are forced to live with other poor relatives or friends. (The average rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment was $1,063 monthly in 2020). When this happens, the very harsh S.S.I. law requires that the benefit gets cut by one-third, forcing the beneficiary into even deeper poverty.

The basic problem is that the S.S.I. program has been virtually unchanged since its inception. Its sub-poverty level payment and nearly 50-year-old punitive means test provisions have meant increasing homelessness among the S.S.I. elderly.

The S.S.I. program's resource or assets limits, last updated in 1989, prohibit an individual from having more than $2,000 or a married couple from having more than $3,000. Preventing savings for emergencies and critical needs only increases insecurity and vulnerabilities. S.S.I. also has a marriage penalty by reducing the married couple's total benefit.

As legal aid lawyers who have represented low-income elderly and individuals with disabilities, we continue to witness countless clients struggling to make ends meet on S.S.I. after they have often battled for years to get through Social Security's red tape, delays, and strict eligibility barriers.

One of these clients is Francesca Lucey (name has been changed to protect client confidentiality), a pregnant 24-year-old with epilepsy, a neurocognitive disorder, and short-term memory loss. Ms. Lucey must live with her mother and grandmother, who help her with various aspects of her life, including caring for her daughter, monitoring her for seizures during pregnancy, and reminding her to take her medication. Recently approved for S.S.I., her living arrangement will reduce her monthly benefits by one-third—to about $530 instead of the maximum of $794.

In addition, before she could be approved, Ms. Lucey was a victim of S.S.I.'s harsh $2,000 resource limit; the Social Security Administration had denied her benefits because her mother had deposited $3,500 from a tax refund into their joint bank account. Ms. Lucey's legal aid lawyer rectified the issue but only after providing extensive paperwork.

Christopher Reilly is a 30-year-old client who suffered a traumatic brain injury as a passenger in a head-on motor vehicle accident. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and depression, he had to move in with his partner for help with daily chores or remembering simple tasks. Because Mr. Reilly was financially unable to pay for his own food and shelter, when approved for S.S.I., the Social Security Administration cut his benefit down to $522 monthly.

Robert Long, Jr., a 21-year-old with autism and an intellectual disability, was in a life skills program at school to learn things like operating a washing machine, which he still struggles to use. Mr. Long is unable to live independently, as he requires his mother's supervision to do simple things such as putting butter on toasted bread. Because he was living with his mother, Social Security applied the one-third reduction to bring his monthly benefit down to $530.

The Social Security Administration recently published a study finding that more than 800,000 disability applicants experienced homelessness during the years 2007 through 2017. Another found that 40% of Social Security disability beneficiaries face food insecurity or inability to pay housing or utility bills. Thus, it is not surprising that S.S.I. beneficiaries face constant hardship and must lean on family and friends for help with shelter and meals. And when they do, an unforgiving law takes a one-third whack out of their benefit.

But the stars may finally be aligned to right this decades-long neglect. The S.S.I. Restoration Act, and efforts underway in Congress to incorporate it into the upcoming Reconciliation budget bill, offers some hope in a once-in-a-generation opportunity to update and improve the program.

The Act modernizes and strengthens S.S.I. by setting the minimum benefit at 100%  of the federal poverty level, reforming assets limits, and ending the marriage penalty and other punitive measures like the one-third reductions.

President Biden has pledged that seniors and people with disabilities should never have to live in poverty and committed to increasing the S.S.I. benefit level to 100% of the poverty level. Polling has shown that nearly 8 in 10 Americans agree with the President on this measure.

Fifty years of neglect and waiting is enough. S.S.I. should be raised at least to the federal poverty level, and one-third reductions for being poor need to be discarded so that individuals like Ms. Lucey are not further trapped in poverty. Low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities should no longer be penalized for who they love and want to marry or for trying to save for an emergency.

If our country should "build back better," it must do so by ensuring that all on S.S.I. can live in dignity.

 

This article has been edited to refer to SSI as serving the low-income disabled rather than most vulnerable disabled.


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Jonathan M. Stein

Jonathan M. Stein began his career with Community Legal Services Inc. in 1968, when he joined CLS as a staff attorney through the Reginald Heber Smith Fellowship Program. Since then Mr. Stein has served as Chief of Health, Education and Welfare Project, Chief of Law reform, Acting Managing Attorney of Law Center North Central, Chief of Special Projects, Executive Director (1983-1986), and General Counsel. In 2019 he retired but remains Of Counsel at CLS. His more than 50 years of unique practice at CLS on behalf of low-income people in the Philadelphia region and nationally has allowed him to be at the forefront of social change and reform while pursuing a broad range of avenues of advocacy and representation.

Chi-Ser Tran

Chi-Ser Tran

Chi-Ser Tran is a Staff Attorney in the SSI Unit and the Language Access Project at Community Legal Services (CLS). She represents low-income individuals with disabilities in administrative hearings and other levels of appeal within state and federal processes. She also focuses on language rights advocacy and improving access to legal services for clients who are limited English proficient (LEP).

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