Senate bill aims to update rules on Supplemental Security Income Assets

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A federal benefits program for the blind, disabled and elderly could get a long-overdue update if a proposal in Washington is approved.

Two Ohio senators — Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown and Republican Sen. Rob Portman — have teamed up to introduce a bill to update the Supplemental Security Income program rules regarding how much recipients can put in next to. The SSI was created by Congress in 1972.

The senators’ bill, called the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, was introduced Thursday.

SSI offers a maximum monthly benefit of $841 per person or $1,261 for couples where both people are eligible for the program.

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However, some recipients receive much less. The average monthly benefit for all beneficiaries is currently $625.50.

Many people receiving these benefits live below or near the federal poverty level, which in 2022 is $13,590 in annual income for individuals.

The SSI also comes with strict rules regarding beneficiary income and assets.

Brown and Portman’s bill aims to update asset limits, which would allow beneficiaries to have more savings in an emergency without affecting their benefits.

Currently, people who get SSI are limited to $2,000 in assets; for married couples, it’s $3,000. The bill seeks to change these limits, which have not changed since 1989, to $10,000 and $20,000, respectively. The change would also help eliminate the marriage penalty for today’s beneficiaries, since the current asset limit for couples is not double that for a single person.

The program’s limits on assets such as savings make it “difficult for SSI recipients and their families to achieve any measure of economic security,” according to a report by the JP Morgan Chase & Co. Policy Center States.

“It doesn’t make sense for SSI rules to punish Americans for saving for emergencies,” Brown said in a statement. “Our bipartisan bill would update outdated rules for the first time in decades and allow beneficiaries to save for emergencies without jeopardizing the benefits they rely on to live on.”

The bill would also adjust inflation thresholds annually based on Consumer Price Index data, as would Social Security benefits.

The proposal follows a broader proposal put forward by Brown last year called the SSI Restoration Act. This bill included changes that would have lifted the program’s income restrictions and raised monthly benefits to 100% of the federal poverty level and indexed them to inflation.

Updating the program’s rules on earnings from work could help improve the standard of living of beneficiaries, a urban institute report found.

Currently, recipients can have up to $20 of unearned income per month, while their first $65 of income is exempt from program rules. Above this threshold, SSI benefits are reduced by 50 cents for every dollar of income. These thresholds have not been changed since 1972.

Brown and Portman’s proposal comes as Congress is set to consider retirement legislation known as Secure 2.0, which also includes other emergency savings measures.

Norman D. Briggs