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SSI benefits could get major overhaul in Congress

Recipients often claim low benefits and strict rules
Congress Debt
Posted at 2:24 PM, Oct 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-10-08 17:25:22-04

WASHINGTON — Should disabled, low-income Americans who can't work be entitled to financial help from the federal government?

Since the 1970s, the answer has been yes.

However, for millions of Americans who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the program has often come with more frustration than gratitude.

WHAT IS SSI?

Supplemental Security Income, often referred to as SSI, began in 1972 with a new law passed by Congress.

It was meant to help disabled Americans with little income, many of whom were leaving institutions at the time as society began to close more of those facilities.

More than 8 million adults receive the benefit, which is administered by the Social Security Administration.

THOUGHTS FROM RECIPIENTS

Tyeishia Freeman’s life changed 9 years ago.

"In 2012, I was in a car accident that killed a man," Freeman said, choking back tears.

"It changed my life forever," Freeman said.

"I wasn’t myself anymore,” Freeman added.

One of the biggest changes?

Freeman's anxiety and PTSD from the accident meant she could no longer work full-time.

“I am a single mother of 7," Freeman said.

Like many Americans, Freeman had no clue SSI existed until a doctor suggested it as a way to provide for her family.

“I had no clue what SSI was,” Freeman added.

HOW MUCH IS GIVEN

The maximum SSI benefit for an individual is $794 a month.

That’s around $9,530 a year, which is below the poverty line of $12,880 a year.

“I am supposed to live, how?” Freeman said.

The amount isn’t what frustrates Freeman the most, however. It’s the rules.

Freeman believes she is capable of working a few hours a week somewhere.

SSI guidelines state, however, that once you earn more than $65 a month in outside income, your monthly benefit gets reduced.

She can’t have more than $2,000 a month in savings either. She says that takes away her drive to work.

“There goes a person like me with anxiety,” Freeman jokes.

FRUSTRATING FOR EXPERTS

Deborah Wagner is with the Legal Aid Society of Greater Cincinnati.

"It hasn’t kept up with the times,” Wagner said of the program.

She says SSI administers know how much money recipients receive because to enroll in the program you must grant access.

"Social security can look at all of your bank accounts,” Wagner added.

Wagner says the complicated rules even impact marriages.

Let's say you have two people on SSI, each receiving $794 a month.

If they decided to get married, the new combined benefit is only $1,191.

That’s less than what they would earn if they stayed single.

“Through the years, I’ve called myself anti-cupid," Wagner said. "I’ve counseled people— don’t get married you’re going to lose money."

CONGRESSIONAL ACTION

All of this begs the question is anything being done to possibly change or update the program.

The answer is yes and changes could be included in the upcoming Democratic spending bill.

“We are going to get something done on this," Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-OH, told Scripps' Joe St. George in an interview recently.

"We are at least raising the threshold so people can begin to work and make a little more and save a little more," Brown said.

Brown is chairman of the influential Senate Banking Committee. He thinks rules should be relaxed.

For the moment, changes could make their way into the Democratic spending bill being negotiated in Congress.

In the meantime, Freeman has this message for officials in Washington:

"Just give us a little mercy," she said.