Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to testify before the Senate Special Committee on Aging about ways to reduce poverty among the elderly. Both Chair Bill Nelson (D-FL) and Ranking Member Susan Collins (R-ME) recognized that although elderly poverty has been reduced dramatically over the past 50 years, it remains a serious problem. This is especially true for women, who are two-thirds of the elderly poor.

Although Social Security does an amazing job of lifting older women out of poverty—without it, nearly half of older women would be poor—millions of older women—especially women of color and single elderly women—still live in poverty.  

There is another program intended specifically to provide a safety net for poor elders and people with disabilities: Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. Two-thirds of aged SSI recipients are women, and SSI does make a difference for many; in 2012, it lifted nearly 317,000 seniors out of poverty and 450,000 out of deep poverty (deep poverty means an income below 50 percent of the federal poverty line, or $5,500 a year for an individual). But between 2011 and 2012, the number of seniors living in deep poverty increased by 235,000, while the number of seniors receiving SSI increased by fewer than 23,000. When the growth in the number of elders in deep poverty is more than ten times the growth in the number receiving SSI, we know our safety net for poor elders is failing.

Part of the problem is that SSI has changed little since it was signed into law over 40 years ago. But finally, there are signs that modernizing SSI is on Congress’ radar screen.

Today, Senator Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Chair of the Subcommittee on Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy of the Senate Finance Committee, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the Supplemental Security Income Restoration Act, a companion to a bill (H.R. 1601) introduced in the House by Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ).

Want to find out specifically how SSI needs to be updated? You can watch the part of my testimony about SSI here, or read on:

  • To be eligible for SSI, an individual can have no more than $2,000 in available savings (including anything they have in a retirement account); a couple, no more than $3,000. These amounts haven’t been changed by Congress in 30 years. The SSI Restoration Act would increase these limits to $10,000 for an individual, $15,000 for a couple.
  • SSI beneficiaries who have earned small Social Security benefits, as most older SSI beneficiaries have, can keep only $20 of that income each month; the rest reduces their SSI benefit dollar for dollar. This amount hasn’t been changed in over 40 years; if it had kept pace with inflation, SSI beneficiaries could keep $110 a month of the Social Security benefits they earned. The SSI Restoration Act would raise the “general income disregard” to that level. It would also raise the earned income disregard, set at $65 in 1972, to an inflation-adjusted $357.
  • SSI includes a number of harsh and complex rules. For example, if family or friends provide food or shelter, cash benefits are reduced; if an SSI recipient repays an informal loan from a family member or friend, he or she loses benefits for a period of time. The SSI Restoration would repeal these provisions.

The reduction in elderly poverty over the past 50 years didn’t happen by itself. It’s the result of enacting and improving programs like Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid. Now it’s time to improve SSI.

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