Supplemental Security Income or SSI is a Social Security disability program that provides basic subsistence benefits for disabled children or those who are blind, over 65, or permanently disabled, but don't qualify for the larger Social Security Disability Insurance program. The reason the vast majority of SSI beneficiaries don't qualify for SSDI is either because they have never been able to work or they haven't worked enough time counting toward the insurance program.
People eligible for SSI benefits are by definition of very limited means. In fact, to qualify for SSI, you cannot have more than $2,000 in countable assets -- an amount that was set in 1989 and has not been adjusted over time for inflation. SSI beneficiaries are encouraged to work if possible, but they can earn no more than $1,505 a month or lose their benefits, and income decreases the benefit payment. The average benefit is $527.51 per month.
The National Council on Disability, an independent federal agency set up to make policy recommendations to Congress and the White House, thinks changes to the SSI program rules are long overdue.
"SSI beneficiaries face the most severe levels of poverty of any group of Social Security beneficiaries," wrote the chair of the Council in a recent letter to President Obama.
That's true, and people on SSI have also been disproportionately impacted by federal budget cuts and the current sequestration.
"It is vital that current law be altered to allow SSI beneficiaries to save in order to blunt the impact of current and future cuts," he added.
First, the council wants the asset limit raised from $2,000 to $10,000 and to have the level set so it will be automatically adjusted to inflation. Second, since many SSI beneficiaries rely solely on Medicaid for access to health care and are among those most in need of that access, the council wants rule changes to make it easier to retain that coverage if the recipient moves across state lines or if their income rises. Finally, the group urged changes to the harsh, dollar-to-dollar reduction in benefits whenever recipients earn income.
"We urge you to incorporate common-sense program reforms to SSI designed to improve beneficiary well-being and enhance the ability of SSI beneficiaries to participate in the workforce," the agency said.