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Supplemental Security Income: An Important Anti-Poverty Program

The poverty rate among Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients in 2013 would have been 63 percent without SSI, as opposed to the actual rate of 42 percent with it, a recent Social Security Administration (SSA) study found.  Moreover, while SSI in many cases does not provide enough to lift people out of poverty, it cuts the number of people in extreme poverty and greatly lessens the burden on other family members, as we explain in our updated backgrounder.

Created under President Nixon to replace a patchwork system of federal grants to states, SSI serves disabled or elderly people who have little income and few assets.  It provides monthly cash assistance to over 8 million people, including 1.3 million children.  SSI’s average monthly benefit was $539 in September 2015 and more than half of SSI recipients have no other source of income. 

While the share of elderly individuals receiving SSI has fallen steadily since the program’s inception, SSI has become increasingly vital for adults and children with severe disabilities (see chart).

SSI Increasingly Vital for Non-Elderly Adults & Children

Still, poverty is high among SSI recipients, and SSI’s outdated rules prevent many needy elderly and disabled Americans from getting benefits.  That’s why the President and Congress should strengthen SSI, including by increasing its basic benefit and raising its stringent and outdated asset and income limits (individuals with assets or income above these limits become ineligible for SSI).  The asset limits have been the same (just $2,000 for a single person) since 1989 and the income limits have been frozen since SSI’s launch in 1974; if the asset limits had been indexed to inflation since 1974, they’d be nearly four times as high as they are today.