We’re asking for your support of a bill that would help SSI recipients


Published: 9/9/2020 8:30:02 AM
Modified: 9/9/2020 8:29:52 AM

In June, approximately 8 million people in the United States received a monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefit from the government. Elders, adults and children with disabilities, all facing extreme poverty, depend on this essential safety net. Thanks to outdated, strict asset limits, they are in danger each month of losing that benefit.

We’re asking for your support of a bill that would help.

Funded through general tax revenues, not Social Security, the SSI program provides monthly cash benefits to recipients to meet basic needs. In June 2020 the SSI program provided a maximum monthly cash benefit of $683.70, with a maximum additional $151 contribution from the state. That brings the total possible monthly maximum benefit, as of June, to $834.70.

SSI is meant to reduce extreme poverty among the elderly and people with disabilities, but its rules are complicated, and it limits eligibility for benefits on the basis not only of income, but of the assets of a family, such as savings and other resources. The asset limits for savings are outdated, as low as $2,000 for a single person or $3,000 for a couple. These limits are entirely inadequate for our current reality, and hamper a family’s preparedness for a medical emergency or unanticipated expense.

Furthermore, while asset limits are part of the SSI program by design, these limits have not been adjusted for inflation since 1989 — 31 years ago. Asset limits that were already severe in 1989 are positively Draconian in 2020.

The Social Security Administration monitors these resources through periodic audits. In any month that an individual is deemed to have more than $2,000 in total financial resources, they must pay back the entire SSI income for that month.

There are various ways an individual could go over the financial resource limit: saving money to pay for a move; saving money for a medical or disability-related expense that has a high co-pay; delays in processing checks or online bill payments. Some individuals also have intellectual or mental health disabilities that make record-keeping tasks more challenging.

Whether the overage is five cents or $500, the penalty is the same — 100% loss of SSI income for that month. What’s more, audits can take place a year or more after a recipient has gone over their asset limit. All the while they’ve not even realized they’ve gone over that limit, which can result in several months of overages and additional penalties.

Any one of us would find it onerous to repay this amount of money, and yet somehow SSI recipients, who are by definition low-income, are expected to manage it with such restricted resources!

There is an answer. In February of this year, the ASSET Act (S.3276 in the Senate and H.R.5848 in the House of Representatives) was introduced in the U.S Congress. S.3276 and H.R.5848 are bills “to eliminate asset limits employed by certain federally funded means-tested public assistance programs, and for other purposes,” including SSI. The ASSET Act would raise SSI asset limits from $2,000 to $10,000 for an individual and $3,000 to $20,000 for a couple, and index those thresholds to inflation. The act would also eliminate savings penalties, reducing administrative costs and resulting in a consistent policy across the country.

The ASSET Act isn’t perfect — it doesn’t address how to help people who have outstanding penalties. These need to be forgiven if recipients are ever to get their heads above water, and therefore we’d urge an amendment to address this before passage of the bills.

But as it stands right now, nothing is happening with the bills at all. Since March, the ASSET Act has been languishing in the Senate Finance Committee. In the House, it’s sitting with four committees, including Ways and Means, which is chaired by Massachusetts’s own U.S. Rep. Richard Neal.

The League of Women Voters of Franklin County encourages you to contact Rep. Neal, along with Rep. McGovern and Sens. Markey and Warren, and urge them to add an amendment to the ASSET Act forgiving outstanding penalties, and then bring this important bill to a vote.

The ASSET Act doesn’t raise taxes, and it doesn’t raise the benefit dollars paid to recipients. It merely allows them to maintain resources at a more realistic limit, and by raising the asset limits, helps prevent their being burdened by repayment penalties for those resources.

Our fellow Americans need the relief the ASSET Act provides, now more than ever. Please act today.

Marie Gauthier is president of the League of Women Voters of Franklin County.

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