Democrats Have Crazy Idea: How About Ending Poverty For Disabled And Elderly Americans?
Yet another item rolling off the line from the Progressive Democratic Ideas Factory: Now that monthly payments for the expanded Child Tax Credit in the American Rescue Plan are set to start reducing child poverty, how about we also fix other parts of the social safety net, too, like increasing benefits for Supplemental Security Income (SSI?? Go read this excellent explainer by Dylan Matthews at Vox, which calls attention to a piece of the safety net lots of people don't know much about, unless they need it. And millions of Americans — 7.8 million — do.
Honestly, while we knew what SSI is, we had no idea how the program came about:
It was passed into law in 1972 after Richard Nixon tried and failed to get Congress to adopt his "guaranteed annual income" plan, essentially a kind of unconditional basic income that would have given the poorest households in America a guaranteed cash benefit.
Yes, you did just read "Richard Nixon" and "unconditional basic income" in the same sentence. Congressional conservatives shot it down, but they agreed to two smaller programs, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and SSI, that have become key parts of the federal anti-poverty toolkit.
Most people have heard of the EITC, if only because it's a line on the 1040 they don't qualify for because they aren't in poverty. EITC helps out working poor families with a tax refund, and because many folks have such low incomes to start with, it can even reduce their income tax liability to zero.
Ranty digression: The EITC is the source of the bullshit rightwing claim that "people who pay no taxes get refunds," although those folks do indeed pay payroll, Social Security, and other taxes. Remember, whenever you hear anyone spouting that crap, remind them that Saint Ronald Goddamn Reagan called the EITC "the best anti-poverty, the best pro-family, the best job creation measure to come out of Congress."
Ahem. The other, lesser-known anti-poverty measure to come out of the failure of Nixon's basic income plan was SSI, which was aimed at helping folks the EITC couldn't, because they're not working due to being retired, disabled, or blind. (Matthews explains blindness is "a different category than 'disabled' for legal purposes." Laws are weird.)
Long story short: SSI was meant to help people in those categories avoid poverty, but it never quite has. So since we're in a New Deal mood these days, maybe we should fix that!
Here's the dealio:
In 2021, the maximum SSI benefit for an individual is $9,530.12 per year. The poverty line for a single person is $12,880 — meaning that SSI, at most, brings recipients up to less than three-quarters of the poverty line.
It gets worse, though. Let's say you're an SSI recipient married to another recipient, which makes you an "eligible couple." You could both be retirees in your 70s, or disabled/blind people earlier in life.
You don't get to add your benefit amounts together. Instead, you have to share a maximum benefit of $14,293.61, only 50 percent more than the individual benefit. The effect is a really dramatic marriage penalty: Two SSI recipients receive a large income boost if they get divorced, but those who marry take a big cut in benefits.
Well a lot of that just doesn't seem right or fair. Further, there are currently strict limits on the amount of assets someone can have in order to qualify for SSI: Just $2000 for an individual, or $3000 for a couple. Perversely, that works against people who have managed to save up a little bit for retirement, or disabled folks with more than just a little in savings. This is America: we don't want the poor to be too comfortable, because then they might have luxury items like a refrigerator or even a color TV.
Joe Biden included reforms to SSI as part of his disability policy plan, so this is not coming out of nowhere. Biden called for setting the maximum SSI benefit at 100 percent of the federal poverty line, which would increase it 35 percent over where it is now. Biden's plan would also get rid of that marriage penalty, so hooray family values or at least some damn fairness. It would also throw out "the complex 'in-kind assistance' provisions that result in reduced SSI checks for some people who, say, live for free in a family member's home."
On the assets side, says Matthews,
Biden would more than double the asset limit for individuals and nearly triple it for couples. I'd personally prefer getting rid of the asset test altogether, as it can encourage people to spend every bit of savings they have to qualify for the benefit; that said, raising it is an improvement.
No doubt Ted Cruz would find some way to make that a "scandal." But fuck him.
More good news: As Dems prepare the big reconciliation bill that's intended to contain most of the stuff in Biden's American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, congressional Democrats are pushing to include the revamp of SSI as part of it. That effort is being led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman, the newly-elected congressman from New York, and veteran Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). Others who have signed on include Senate Finance Committee Chair Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), who chairs the Budget Committee. Saaay, who's actually leading the preparation of the reconciliation bill? That'd be Bernie.
The reforms are supported by all the groups you'd expect, from the AARP to the unions to disability rights groups. And like the changes to the Child Tax Credit, SSI overhaul stands to take a significant bit out of poverty, which could be a hell of a good thing for Dems to run on in the next two elections.
The Urban Institute estimates that the combination of SSI changes and other Social Security reforms Biden has proposed would lift 1.4 million elderly or disabled people out of poverty in 2021. While increasing SSI alone would do less, it would still be a significant step forward for the people impacted.
And in a year when we're learning that the rich are legally avoiding taxes to a greater degree than anyone but their lawyers and accountants imagined, and the IRS doesn't have the resources to collect all the tax that's actually owed even without the loopholes, we're not betting there's likely to be a lot of public pushback to improving SSI. Republicans may invoke the national debt and Fox News may sputter. But disabled folks, who built increased political power in the Democratic coalition while fighting off 2017 the attempt to kill Obamacare, aren't likely to let this drop. It's far past time to follow through on the nearly 50-year-old commitment that nobody should live in poverty because they're elderly or disabled.
And now, your OPEN THREAD!
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Doktor Zoom's real name is Marty Kelley, and he lives in the wilds of Boise, Idaho. He is not a medical doctor, but does have a real PhD in Rhetoric. You should definitely donate some money to this little mommyblog where he has finally found acceptance and cat pictures. He is on maternity leave until 2033. Here is his Twitter, also. His quest to avoid prolixity is not going so great.