June 18, 2024

At Hearing, Warren Urges Adequate Cash Assistance for Disabled and Low-Income Seniors Receiving Supplemental Security Income, Calls for Reforms to Improve Program, Lower Administrative Costs

Warren: “SSI is supposed to keep Americans with disabilities out of poverty, but it offers below-poverty-level support, punishes recipients for working, and punishes recipients for saving, all while burdening SSA and wasting taxpayer dollars.”

Video of Exchange (01:42:43-1:47:27)

Washington, D.C. — At a hearing of the U.S. Senate Committee on Finance, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) questioned Social Security Administration Associate Commissioner Susan B. Wilschke, about concerns over the complexity of navigating the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) process for beneficiaries and the difficulty of administering SSI payments for the Social Security Administration (SSA). 

Commissioner Wilschke confirmed that individuals who worked jobs or saved money would see a reduction in their benefits. Ms. Wilschke also agreed with Senator Warren that current SSI rules are burdensome for the administration to carry out, noting that the program takes up a significant portion of its budget. Senator Warren concluded by calling for the passage of the SSI Restoration Act, which would update the rules for recipients, raise the benefit rate, and ultimately make it easier for SSA to administer the SSI program.

Transcript: Hearings to examine work and Social Security Disability benefits, focusing on addressing challenges and creating opportunities.
U.S. Senate Committee on Finance
June 18, 2024

Senator Warren: Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

So, in 1972 Congress established the Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, so that people with disabilities could live in dignity and be somewhat self-supporting by getting a monthly cash payment. And it’s now a critical lifeline for about 8 million Americans. 

But the problem is that these outdated rules have stranded about 4 out of every 10 people who receive it in poverty and unable to work. 

So, I want to walk through an example just to make sure we’re in on the numbers. A young woman living with a disability who receives an average SSI payment, which is about $698 a month last year. Well below the poverty line, so she picks up a remote minimum wage graphic design job for 8 hours a week, allowing her to take home another $232 a month, still leaving her well below the poverty line.

Ms. Wilschke, you’re an associate commissioner at the Social Security Administration. Say that SSA sees that this woman is earning $232 from her job each month on top of her SSI benefits. Under current law, can she keep the $232?

Ms. Wilschke: Thank you for the question. She would keep part of it, but her benefit would be reduced. 

Senator Warren: How much?

Ms. Wilschke: She can keep the first $85 and half of the rest. 

Senator Warren: So she gets $85 is the amount she can keep from her work. And after that, for every $2 she earns, what happens to her Social Security benefits? 

Ms. Wilschke: It would go down by a dollar. 

Senator Warren: They go down by a dollar. You know, and then it gets worse. We’ve talked about another part of this cliff. 

Say she works for a few hours each week, she manages to put a little money aside, she wants to put down a deposit to try to get an apartment. And between her savings and SSI and her job, she manages to save just a little over $2,000. Now when SSA sees that she has over $2,000, just walk us through: what happens, Ms. Wilschke? 

Ms. Wilschke: Generally speaking, if she has liquid resources above the asset limit, she would not be eligible, at least for that month. 

Senator Warren: So she loses all of her benefits at that point. So she’s done at that point. 

So, SSI rules mean that this young woman can’t afford to save for an apartment, she can’t take a part time job without jeopardizing the benefits. And having to continuously toe the monetary line here in order to keep her existing payments, I think is a minefield, as Senator Whitehouse has just pointed out, especially for an individual with a disability. 

So, it's not just hard for SSI recipients, which we've been talking about. I want to talk about what it does for SSA. Associate Commissioner Wilschke, how does the complexity of SSI’s eligibility rules impact the Social Security Administration and your administrative costs?

Ms. Wilschke: Thank you for the question. Yes, SSI is complex for us to administer. And so while SSI payments only make up about 4 or 5% of our benefit outlays, it does make up about a third of our administrative budget.

Senator Warren: So you're spending a third of your budget to track down people who now have $2,010 in total assets or who have made 100 bucks more than the $85 that they were entitled to earn without triggering this. 

You know, SSI is supposed to keep Americans with disabilities out of poverty, but it offers below poverty level support, it punishes people for working, and it punishes recipients for savings. All while the Social Security Administration is spending big dollars in order to administer the system. 

So I think we've all been talking about the importance of making changes here. I'm working with Senator Brown and others on this committee to pass the SSI Restoration Act, which would raise the benefit rate and help fix these outdated rules. I’m glad to see that there's bipartisan support for raising the asset limits so that SSI beneficiaries can save more than a few pennies without fear of losing their benefits and so that the Social Security Administration can just spend less time administering all of this. 

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.