By Michelle Spadafore, Esq.,
Supervising Attorney, Disability Advocacy Project

This week, U.S. Senators Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Representative Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) reintroduced a long overdue bill to strengthen and modernize Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits that are critical to the wellbeing of elderly, disabled, and blind Americans, including 1.3 million children.

As Senator Warren said when she introduced the bill last year, “SSI is a critical program that helps millions of our poorest and most vulnerable citizens keep their heads above water.” I’m very pleased to join Senator Brown to introduce the SSI Restoration Act, which will help strengthen SSI for families who rely on these essential benefits.”

The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act (HR 2442/S 1387) would fix key elements of the SSI program that currently make life difficult for millions of low-income disabled and elderly individuals. Most of the SSI eligibility rules have not been updated since 1972 – when Richard Nixon was in the White House. After decades unchanged, the program is woefully out of step with the economic realities faced by the vulnerable Americans it was created to protect. For example, a beneficiary is only allowed to receive a maximum of $20 from other sources (such as a pension) without having their benefits reduced. The cost of living today is more than 5.5 times what it was in 1972, when you could buy a loaf of bread for 25 cents and a gallon of gas for 52 cents. The SSI Restoration Act would permit individuals to receive up to $112 monthly without a corresponding loss in benefits.

The bill will also increase the amount of money recipients can save for emergencies such as medical bills, and home and car repairs from the current cap of $2,000 to $10,000 ($15,000 for couples).  Often an illness or other unexpected expense can cause an individual to be temporarily unable to pay bills, leading to a slight excess in accumulated benefits. Currently, if their bank account goes over $2,000 on the first of the month – even by $1 – disabled and elderly recipients lose their only means of support.

The SSI benefit rate for an individual living alone is $820, which is rarely sufficient to pay for even a studio apartment in New York City. Often an elderly individual’s adult child will assist him or her in meeting rental responsibilities each month by paying $100 or $200 directly to the landlord. Under the current program, the monthly benefit is reduced whenever someone receives food or housing for less than fair market value from another person, including family members. The reintroduced bill eliminates this harsh provision.

According to a 2013 Economic Policy Institute Briefing Paper, 48 percent of the elderly population in the United States (roughly 19.9 million people) is “economically vulnerable,” defined as having an income that is less than two times the supplemental poverty threshold (SPT). SPT is a poverty measure that the Census Bureau has adopted in recent years that takes a more comprehensive look at what it actually costs to live than the traditional federal poverty line.

This number will only continue to climb as the massive population of baby boomers enters their “golden years” with limited savings and assets to support them through retirement.

My colleagues and I who staff NYLAG’s Disability Advocacy Project see the overwhelming challenges faced by the poor and disabled individuals we serve every day. The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act is by no means a cure-all, but it will provide some long overdue relief for millions of Americans, and deliver on a promise we made them 40 years ago.

What can you do to help? You can email U.S. Senator of New York Charles Schumer or contact him by phone to let him know that you support the bill, and encourage him to co-sponsor the legislation.

Where can you find more information? Justice in Aging (formerly the National Senior Citizens Law Center), which supports the legislation, has posted an excellent overview and additional materials to their website.