Bill in Congress Aims to Address Poverty Among Older Adults and People with Disabilities

Washington, DC—(July 19, 2017) 85-year-old Ortencia boils soup bones with vegetables she gets from the food bank to stretch her weekly food allotment and stay healthy. 61-year old Carey endures numerous aches and pains to carry groceries home from the bus, the cheapest form of transportation. Both struggle to survive on Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a need-based program administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA) that provides a very basic income to older adults and people with disabilities. Major provisions of the program haven’t been updated since it was created in 1972, and as the program fails to keep up with the cost of living, the 8.3 million people who rely on it to pay rent, buy food, and meet other basic needs keep falling further below the poverty line.

Representative Grijalva (D-AZ) introduced the SSI Restoration Act of 2017 in Congress today, with the support of 36 representatives and more than 80 organizations. The SSI Restoration Act puts forth solutions intended to help people like Ortencia and Carey make ends meet. The act increases the amount of money individuals can receive to supplement their income from both employment and non-employment sources; it increases the amount of assets individuals and couples can save for emergencies to a limit that’s more in line with today’s dollars; it repeals a provision that discourages people from seeking help from family; and removes the marriage penalty, among other adjustments.

“Ortencia was a Kindergarten teacher and Carey was a desk clerk and delivery driver. Both worked many years in low-wage jobs that didn’t leave enough at the end of the month to save for retirement,” said Tracey Gronniger, Directing Attorney for Justice in Aging, which supports the bill. “This is a situation many Americans today can relate to,” she added.

Though some states, like California, provide a small supplement, the maximum federal monthly SSI benefit for an individual in most of the country is $735. Married couples can receive up to $1,103 a month. In many communities in the US, neither amount is sufficient to pay rent on the average studio or one-bedroom apartment. Never mind buying food, clothing, or keeping the heat on. If the recipient has over $20 a month in income from another non-employment source, such as Social Security or a pension, their benefit is reduced dollar-for-dollar. If they earn more than $65 a month from work, their benefit is also reduced.

“To allow our seniors and people with disabilities to live in poverty is perhaps one of our greatest moral shortcomings as a nation. While the costs of living continues to skyrocket and essentials become increasingly less affordable, the most vulnerable among us—seniors and individuals with disabilities—bear a disproportionate impact,” said Representative Grijalva. “Although the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program has helped alleviate financial burdens for millions, the fact remains that many of its provisions from the 1970s are intact. The Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act, which I am proud to reintroduce with a strong coalition of colleagues and organizations, would enact key reforms to update the program and provide it a strong foundation so it continues to serve populations for generations to come.”

Individuals are also ineligible for SSI benefits if they maintain enough savings to get through an emergency. An individual with more than $2,000 in assets (or $3,000 if they’re a couple), is completely ineligible for SSI benefits. And if their savings goes over that amount while they are receiving benefits they lose their eligibility and must reapply, which can take months. This means a medical emergency, or home or car repair, can spell disaster for people receiving SSI, even driving them into homelessness.

The SSI Restoration Act of 2017 will fix these problems by increasing the amount of income people can retain and raising the asset limits to numbers more in line with today’s economic realities.

Read more about the specific provisions of the Act in this Justice in Aging Issue Brief. And more about SSI in this Fact Sheet. Learn more about Ortencia and Carey’s stories, as well as others on SSI by watching this short video. See the list of supporters here.

Justice in Aging is a national non-profit legal advocacy organization that fights senior poverty through law. Formerly the National Senior Citizens Law Center, since 1972 we’ve worked for access to affordable health care and economic security for older adults with limited resources, focusing especially on populations that have traditionally lacked legal protection such as women, people of color, LGBT individuals, and people with limited English proficiency. Through targeted advocacy, litigation, and the trainings and resources we provide to local advocates, we ensure access to the social safety net programs that poor seniors depend on, including Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). 

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Contact: Vanessa Barrington
510-256-1200 direct
vbarrington@justiceinaging.org

About Katrina Cohens

Katrina Cohens is based in Justice in Aging’s Washington, DC office and serves as the Database Manager.