Authored by Gerald McIntyre, Directing Attorney, National Senior Citizens Law Center
The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program was established to provide critical subsistence income to those older people and people with disabilities who are in greatest economic need. As Pres. Nixon said on the day he signed the SSI program into law, “For millions of older people, it can mean a big step out of poverty and toward a life of dignity and independence.” Today eight million people rely on this program for survival. Two out of every three people over the age of 65 who are receiving SSI are women, most often single women. In order to qualify for SSI, you cannot have more than $2,000 in resources (a home, an automobile and basic household necessities are not counted) and, in most states you cannot have more than $694 in monthly income. If you qualify, the maximum monthly grant you can receive in most of the country is $674. For most SSI recipients, that is the only income they have. For those who do have other income, it is most likely a small Social Security benefit and the SSI grant is reduced to reflect the Social Security benefit.
Yet even these very modest benefits are at risk in the current budget debate. For example, if Congress were to enact an across-the-board spending cap, SSI would be severely impacted and the monthly SSI benefit would be reduced from its already inadequate level. The impact on SSI would be even more severe if, as has been discussed, some major areas of government spending such as defense, Medicare and Social Security were exempt from the cap. The cuts would soon be reflected in unprecedented levels of homelessness among America’s elderly and disabled population. A yet worse result might be anticipated from a proposal by the House Republican Policy Committee to dismantle the SSI program and replace it with block grants to the states funded at 2007 funding levels. Already, without any of the more draconian proposals being adopted, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has seen a decrease in administrative funding at the same time the caseload pressure has been increasing. Furthermore drastic cuts in administrative funding are threatened. If these cuts are put into effect, SSA offices will be closed, office staff will be furloughed, already long processing times will be increased and some people will lose access to the program altogether.
Yes, the SSI program needs changes. It needs changes to bring it up to date, not changes to return to the time of the Elizabethan Poor Law. Unfortunately, over the years SSI has been all but forgotten in Washington, except when it comes time to look for ways of saving money. This emphasis needs to change. To begin with, the Federal Benefit Rate of $674 needs to be increased. Also, at present, you cannot have more than $2,000 in resources (not counting your home, automobile or household furnishings) in order to be eligible for SSI. This amount has increased only 33% since the program was put into law 39 years ago.
During that same time, the cost of living has increased over 400%. The resource limit needs to be increased to $10,000 so that those who are trying to stay in their own homes, can afford to pay for some inevitable and necessary repairs. Another outmoded provision is one which reduces the maximum federal benefit to $449 a month for someone living in the household of another person. Often that other person is a relative, also with limited income, who cannot afford to subsidize the SSI recipient. Finally, as in any program of this size and complexity, it is inevitable that mistakes will be made in determining eligibility or amount of benefits. The U.S. Constitution requires that there be an effective means of appealing these determinations. Unfortunately, the appeals system at SSA is a shambles and SSI recipients are left with no effective means of appeal. The integrity of the appeals process must be restored as part of any SSI modernization.