This week is the 40th anniversary of the Supplemental Security Income program, SSI. We celebrate SSI’s vital role in providing support to the elderly poor and to poor adults and children with disabilities. It’s a particularly important program for women, who make up over two-thirds of all beneficiaries 65 and older.

Forty isn’t very old. Our Social Security system is 77, and it’s an American classic. But key parts of SSI have barely changed in the 40 years since it was enacted – and it urgently needs to be updated.

For example, with the exception of $20 per month, every additional $1 in Social Security benefits means $1 less in SSI benefits. This amount hasn’t been changed since the program was created 40 years ago – but what you can buy with $20 sure has. Adjusting for inflation since 1972 would raise this amount to $110 per month, allowing individuals with very low Social Security benefits – disproportionately women – to get a more meaningful benefit from their years of work and contributions to Social Security.

The current asset limit for SSI is just $2,000 for an individual, $3,000 for a couple. Those amounts haven’t been adjusted in nearly 30 years. They make it nearly impossible for an SSI recipient to save for emergencies or even daily needs.

And, even for those poor enough to qualify, SSI benefits are inadequate to bring a person out of poverty. The maximum federal benefit rate for an individual is less than $700 per month.

Yet instead of considering improvements, some members of Congress are considering a proposal that would cut SSI as well as Social Security benefits: reducing the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) in these and other programs by switching to the chained CPI. 

If you read this blog regularly, you know that switching to the chained CPI is a stealth cut to Social Security benefits that would especially hurt women. Less well known is the fact that SSI beneficiaries would get a double reduction from the chained CPI, because the SSI COLA is applied to both initial and subsequent benefits. Thus someone who receives her first SSI check ten years after adoption of the chained CPI would experience the impact of ten years of an inadequate COLA in her very first check, as well as a reduction every year thereafter.

But Congress should do more than reject cuts to SSI. The National Senior Citizen’s Law Center and Latinos for a Secure Retirement have some great ideas for strengthening and improving SSI. Here’s hoping that next year, there are new reasons to celebrate.

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