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Bipartisan group would boost asset limits for benefit program

Thresholds to qualify for income-support program haven’t increased since 1980s

Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, arrives for a Banking Committee hearing on Thursday, September 7, 2023.
Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, arrives for a Banking Committee hearing on Thursday, September 7, 2023. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

A bipartisan Senate duo introduced legislation Tuesday to allow Supplemental Security Income recipients to amass greater savings and still qualify for benefits.

The bill sponsored by Sens. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, and Bill Cassidy, R-La., would raise financial savings limits for the first time in decades. The current limits have left low-income elderly, blind and disabled people unable to save for emergencies without losing benefits that provide a financial lifeline, lawmakers said.

“Americans receiving Supplemental Security Income are being victimized by a bunch of government rules from yesteryear,” said Senate Finance Chair Ron Wyden, D-Ore., who is backing the bill and attended a news conference to introduce the measure. “The fact is these are rules that have not kept up with the times.”

The program provides monthly cash benefits to an estimated 7.5 million elderly, blind and disabled people who have limited income and financial resources. The average benefit in February was $675, according to the Congressional Research Service.

But to remain eligible, recipients can’t earn or save more than specified limits, which have remained the same since 1989. The bill would raise the savings limit for individuals from $2,000 to $10,000. The limit for married couples would be raised from $3,000 to $20,000. The limits would also be adjusted for inflation after 2023.

“Arbitrary and outdated restrictions prevent these Americans from saving money for emergencies and they punish people who want to do the right thing and save money,” said Brown, who introduced his bill flanked by a broad coalition of social service and business representatives, including AARP, the National Association of Evangelicals, JP Morgan Chase & Co. and Microsoft Corp.

“It’s the largest, broadest coalition in 40 years to reform these outdated rules,” Brown said. Reps. Brian Higgins, D-N.Y., and Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa., were expected to introduce companion legislation in the House.

Current benefits cost over $5 billion per month; in fiscal 2022, including administrative spending total program costs were about $65.5 billion, the CRS said.

Expanding benefits as envisioned in the Brown-Cassidy bill is expected to cost about $10 billion over 10 years, said Bill Hoagland, senior vice president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, which is backing the measure.

“While I’m concerned about the level of debt, SSI recipients — the disabled, the blind — they’re not responsible for this level of debt,” Hoagland said, adding that senators “will find a way to offset this cost.”

Brown, who is facing one of the toughest reelection campaigns among his colleagues in 2024, said he planned to attach the measure to some form of end-of-the-year, must-pass legislation.

“It’s a perfect kind of thing to do,” Brown said. “I assume we’ll have the leaders in both houses and both parties on board.”

Wyden likewise promised action this year, beginning with the Finance Committee. “As chairman of the committee, we are going to do everything we can to pass this bill,” he said. “We’re going to look at every possible vehicle that moves through the Senate.”

Rylin Rodgers, disability policy adviser for Microsoft Corp., said her company supports the bill because of a commitment to closing the “disability divide,” or the gap in employment rates between those with and without disabilities.

“We came to this commitment because we have so benefited from the talent and perspective of disabled folks as part of our employment and as part of our supply chain,” she said in an interview. “It makes us a better company and makes our products better.”

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