Supplemental Security Income marks age 50. How benefits can change

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A federal program for people with disabilities and older adults made the first distributions 50 years ago.

In 1974, Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, began sending out the first monthly checks starting at approx $140 per personor $210 per couple.

In 2024, the maximum monthly benefit is $943 for individuals and $1,415 for eligible couples. however, the average monthly benefit for private individuals is approximately $698.

That is well below the federal poverty level, which is about $1,255 per month for an individual in 2024.

Experts say the program — with more than seven million beneficiaries who must have little income or resources to qualify — could be updated to better fulfill its intended mission as a financial lifeline when former President Richard Nixon created the program in 1972. signed into law.

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SSI benefits are subject to strict limitations. Income from employment and other sources may reduce how much beneficiaries receive from the program. In addition, they must stay below certain asset limits — $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples — or risk having their benefits suspended or terminated.

The rules are a burden not only on beneficiaries, but also on the Social Security Administration.

“For all the people receiving SSI, it is actually only 4% of our total benefits that we offer as an agency, yet it is responsible for 38% of our administrative overhead and workload,” said Social Security Commissioner Martin O'Malley during a meeting. National Academy for Social Insurance event last week in Washington, D.C., to commemorate the program's anniversary.

Updates aimed at improving access to benefits

The Social Security Administration is taking steps to try to reduce some of the restrictions associated with SSI benefits.

The agency has announced that this will no longer happen treating food as unearned income – formally known as in-kind support and maintenance, or ISM – penalizing beneficiaries if their family provides dinner for them, for example. It also expands the rental subsidy policy for SSI applicants and beneficiaries, as well as the definition of a household by government. These changes, expected to take effect Sept. 30, should help more people access and qualify for SSI, O'Malley said.

Moreover, the agency has also made it easier for beneficiaries to apply remission of overpaymentsor redundant benefits they may have received. It also increased the SSI underpayment threshold up to $15,000 of $5,000, which has helped resolve backlogged cases.

Congress may be able to make more changes

Congress can further improve the program through additional reforms.

By involving the Social Security Administration operate overhead To where it was a decade ago, O'Malley said the agency could continue to work on easing disability application approvals and wait times for telephone assistance.

“It wouldn't add a dime to the federal debt because you've already paid for it,” O'Malley said.

Additionally, experts argue that raising SSI asset thresholds—which have not been increased in about four decades—could help beneficiaries achieve better financial security.

Two bills in Congress have proposed major SSI reforms.

The Democrats have the Additional Security of Income Restoration Actcalling for increasing the program's asset limits, setting the minimum benefit at 100% of the federal poverty level, streamlining the claims process and eliminating certain benefit cuts.

Another bipartisan proposal – the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act – would increase asset limits from $2,000 and $3,000 to $10,000 per individual and $20,000 per couple, respectively. Consequently, it would remove the marriage penalty that current beneficiaries face.

“There is clear momentum behind the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act,” said Emerson Sprick, deputy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Economic Policy Program, at the NASI event.

The question is whether Congress can tie this to a new legislative effort — perhaps related to spending — to implement the proposed changes in the near future, he said.

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“We need to significantly increase benefit levels… to at least the poverty level,” Gronniger said.

The poverty rate can also be improved by helping to increase SSI participation in underserved communities, especially for people of color, she said.

While recent updates to food and housing policies will help, there is more room to update outdated policies that can hinder access to benefits, said Jennifer Burdick, division supervisor at Community Legal Services' SSI unit in Philadelphia.

“It would be really great if Congress could fix the bigger problems with the program so that we don't have to look for other ways to come up with solutions to problems that Congress isn't solving,” Burdick said.

Correction: Emerson Sprick is deputy director of the Bipartisan Policy Center's Economic Policy Program. An earlier version misstated part of his title.

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