SSI Needs to Be Reinvigorated-There's No Way to Survive on Its Current Benefit Levels

By McIntyre, Gerald | Aging Today, September/October 2011 | Go to article overview

SSI Needs to Be Reinvigorated-There's No Way to Survive on Its Current Benefit Levels


McIntyre, Gerald, Aging Today


In an October 30, 1972, radio address on the day he signed the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program into law, President Richard Nixon described the new program's purpose, saying, "For millions of older people, it can mean a big step out of poverty and toward a life of dignity and independence." Unfortunately, ever since that day, the SSI program has slipped further and further away from that goal, to the point where today's SSI benefit guarantees that recipients will not be able to step out of poverty. Instead, we have reports of increasing homelessness among older Americans.

Cash Benefit Woefully Inadequate

The SSI program establishes a Federal Benefit Rate (FBR) and provides a monthly cash benefit to eligible individuals to bring their total income up to that rate (a minority of states provide a modest state supplement; SSI recipients in those states are brought up to a slightly higher income level). To be eligible for SSI, an individual must be at least age 65 or blind or disabled, and meet the program's stringent financial eligibility requirements.

The Federal Benefit Rate is currently $674 per month. That means that if an individual SSI recipient in Washington, D.C, or in most states, has no income, he or she will receive a monthly benefit of $674 to pay for housing, food and all other expenses. Although the FBR is adjusted annually to reflect changes in the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W), that measure, based as it is on the expenditures of a working-age population, seriously underestimates the increase in cost of living for the elderly and disabled population served by SSI. People on SSI spend a much higher percentage of their income on healthcarethe sector of our economy with the highest rate of inflation. This means that every year the actual purchasing power of the FBR declines.

Over the years, this shortfall has been compounded and negative effects have surfaced. …

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