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The safety net program Congress forgot

  April 23, 2021 | By Rebecca Valla & Matthew Cortland, The Hill

$794 per month. Imagine that as the only income you have to get by on.

That’s the harsh economic reality for millions of people with disabilities and seniors who rely on Supplemental Security Income, or SSI — a critical but paltry program administered by the Social Security Administration that’s been left to wither on the vine for decades.

As a former SSI beneficiary and a former legal aid lawyer who represented people wrongfully denied SSI benefits, we know firsthand how vital the income support that SSI provides can be. For many of the program’s roughly 8 million disabled and elderly beneficiaries, it can mean the difference between having a roof over your head and being out on the street. But we’ve also witnessed the human consequences of decades of federal neglect: SSI is now a program that consigns disabled people and seniors to abject poverty.

With a maximum monthly benefit of just $794, SSI tops out at about three-quarters of the federal poverty line. That isn’t enough to rent a one-bedroom apartment in any state in the U.S. — even if you spent 100 percent of monthly benefits on rent. The average rent for a modest one-bedroom apartment in 2020 was $1,063 per month — 128 percent of an SSI recipient’s monthly income.

Meanwhile, under current law, SSI beneficiaries are legally prohibited from having even modest emergency savings. The program’s long-outdated asset limits have been stuck at $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples for more than three decades. These rigid limits have lost immense purchasing power over the years. Had they been updated for inflation, they would be $9,500 and $12,675 respectively today. These counterproductive limits penalize savings and prevent beneficiaries from having even a modest rainy day fund for emergencies — such as a pandemic, statewide power grid failure, or forest fires — further entrenching poverty among seniors and disabled people.

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