How Americans with Disabilities Are Striving to Overhaul a Key Benefits Program

When Congress created the Supplemental Security Income in 1972, it left no doubt about its intentions. The program, lawmakers wrote , w...


When Congress created the Supplemental Security Income in 1972, it left no doubt about its intentions. The program, lawmakers wrote, was “designed to provide positive assurance that the country’s elderly, blind and disabled people no longer have to live on incomes below the poverty line.”

Today, it guarantees the opposite.

The maximum annual benefit is $ 9,528, three-quarters of the federal poverty line. Payments decrease if beneficiaries have more than $ 85 per month in outside income and are revoked if they exceed $ 2,000 in savings. There are penalties for accepting groceries or even accommodating loved ones. As a result, it is structurally difficult to be in SSI and not to live in poverty.

The change occurred over nearly five decades in which Congress made no major changes to the program, which is administered by the Social Security Administration and serves approximately eight million Americans. External income ceilings, for example, have never been updated for inflation.

Now, as Democrats decipher the details of the trillions of dollars in spending they hope will go through budget reconciliation without needing Republican support, ISS beneficiaries and supporters see a rare opportunity to reshuffle the program.

It is far from being a guarantee. On Wednesday Senator Kyrsten Sinema, Democrat of Arizona, said she would not support the entire $ 3.5 trillion package her party has proposed – and because her support and that of Senator Joe Manchin III, Democrat of West Virginia, are essential, what is left in the package will depend on what they are willing to take.

Republicans and some moderate Democrats oppose passing a package that would dramatically increase the deficit, and if it has to be cut to win 50 votes, a huge range of proposals – on education, health care , climate change and much more – will compete. for inclusion.

But “there is a blow,” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, Democrat of New York, said in a virtual forum with advocates last week, calling the state of the SSI program a “national scandal” and urging his supporters to call the White House and congressional leaders. “every day.”

Mr Bowman is a major sponsor of the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act, which advocates want to include in the reconciliation bill and which the Chief Social Security Actuary estimates would cost $ 46 billion in 2022 and a total of $ 510 billion over the next decade. Among other things, this would raise SSI payments to the federal poverty level and index them to inflation; provide more than $ 500 per month in outside income without penalty; increase the asset limit to $ 10,000; and remove penalties for “in-kind support,” such as a friend providing shelter.

In a sense, the bill is just another example of a measure that ceased to be a failure when the Democrats took control. But it is also the culmination of years of work by people with disabilities, who have sought settle down as a bloc capable of influencing elections and making demands on elected officials.

“We were making turmoil from within, but it was outside groups that really put it on the mainstream Democratic agenda,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown, Democrat from Ohio, who is the main sponsor. of the SSI bill in the Senate and sponsored similar legislation for years. alongside Rep. Raúl Grijalva, Democrat from Arizona, and others. “They were less active when it was a Republican Senate and a president like Trump because they knew there wasn’t much at the end of the rainbow.”

Last month, advocacy groups helped organize what they said was the first bicameral briefing on SSI – essentially a presentation to congressional staff – in more than 30 years. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont included the SSI changes on a tentative list of Democratic priorities. Mr Bowman said he had spoken with White House officials and that “all signs are that the president is in favor.”

The White House did not respond to a request for comment, but President Biden approved changes to the SSI during his election campaign, a move without which “I don’t think what we saw on the Hill would have been possible, ”Matthew said. Cortland, a senior fellow at Data for Progress and leader of a campaign called #DemolishDisabledPoverty, of which the SSI push is a part.

Other factors may be the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on disabled and aging Americans and a growing collaboration between these groups.

Rebecca Vallas, senior fellow at the Century Foundation and leader of #DemolishDisabledPoverty, called the current effort “the next logical step in what we saw in 2017 and 2018, when the disability community and the seniors community came together to fight together to protect the Affordable Care Act and Medicaid.

A century of foundation / data for progress survey in May found bipartisan support for raising SSI payments to the poverty line: 91% among Democrats and 70% among Republicans, with a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points.

Republican lawmakers have remained largely silent on the SSI proposal, although they strongly oppose the comprehensive reconciliation bill.

Jeffrey Miron, an economist at the Cato Libertarian Institute and Harvard, said the measure was “completely rational given the goals” and that the main ideological point of contention was the goals themselves. He added that SSI was not a major contributor to the deficit.

“If you think that having insufficiently generous programs is a problem, then increasing benefits does solve the problem,” Miron said. “If it’s good overall and if a wide range of people would agree to the programs being more generous, it’s a much more difficult question. “

Beyond organizers like Ms Vallas and Mr Cortland, himself a former SSI beneficiary, current beneficiaries have started talking about how program restrictions affect them.

Felix Guzman, an SSI beneficiary with autism and schizoaffective disorder, said higher payments could cover speech therapy or communication devices for his 7-year-old son, who is autistic and non-verbal.

“The difference between waiting a month to two months for an article that could help him communicate can make the difference between whether or not he hits a milestone for his disability,” said Guzman, 39.

Other beneficiaries say they cannot pursue meaningful work because it could cost them their SSI and accompanying Medicaid coverage without providing sufficient income or insurance to compensate. Some want to test their ability to hold a job, but don’t want to risk having nothing to fall back on if they don’t.

“It can be very difficult to get your SSI or Medicaid back once you lose these benefits,” said Mia Ives-Rublee, director of the Disability Justice Initiative at the Center for American Progress, who uses a wheelchair and is pressed SSI. To college. “There is a real trap in balancing your health needs against your willpower and ability to work. “

The program can also discourage marriage, as a spouse’s assets – even a few thousand dollars in a retirement account – would count towards the $ 3,000 asset limit for couples.

“The amount of benefits we lose is in the thousands – it’s not something a normal spouse can afford,” said a disabled SSI beneficiary who spoke on condition of anonymity because she feared retaliation for having denounced the rules of the program on which it is based. “Most of us, including me, don’t get married because I would literally die. I would lose everything.

This recipient once said she was too sick to leave home for two months, and because her daily expenses declined, her bank account balance fell from just under $ 2,000 to 2,135. $ without her realizing it. When the Social Security Administration found out, she had to repay her full SSI benefit for those months, which took two years.

The organizers of #DemolishDisabledPoverty also want Congress to increase funding for home and community services; eliminate a law which allows companies to pay certain disabled workers much less than the minimum wage; and update Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI, which is separate from SSI but has many similar limitations.

Melanie Waldman, 30, who suffers from lupus, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome and an amputated arm, has been unemployed since quitting a job she said “destroyed my body.” She receives about $ 800 per month from SSDI

She has theater training and said she wanted to pursue roles, but should charge less. She is entitled to $ 10,000 per year in outside income, and prior to being a member of the SSDI, she earned about $ 13,000 as an actress. Even though SSDI pays less, it cannot afford to lose it as it would mean losing health care.

Mr Cortland said the current push is focused on the ISS because it can be changed by budget reconciliation, while the SSDI cannot. But he stressed during last week’s virtual forum that advocates will also be working to change SSDI.

The forum, hosted by the Century Foundation, included Mr Bowman and Rep. Ayanna Pressley, Democrat of Massachusetts, both of whom urged the estimated 17,000 people watching to lobby lawmakers.

“I know I preach in the choir, and as a granddaughter of a Baptist preacher, there is a reason for that,” Ms. Pressley said. “It’s because I need the choir to sing.

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Newsrust - US Top News: How Americans with Disabilities Are Striving to Overhaul a Key Benefits Program
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