April 27,2017

Press Contact:

Taylor Harvey and Sam Offerdahl (Wyden): 202-224-4515 
Jennifer Donohue (Brown): 202-224-2315

Wyden, Brown, Senate Democrats Introduce Bill to Stop Government from Taking Away Social Security Benefits to Pay Off Student Loans

Older Americans and Americans with Disabilities Face Financial Hardship as Federal Government Withholds Social Security Benefits for Skyrocketing Student Loan Payments

WASHINGTON Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and Senator Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, the Ranking Member of the Finance Committee Social Security, Pensions, and Family Policy Subcommittee, along with eleven Senate Democrats, today introduced a bill to protect Americans who receive Social Security from having their benefits garnished to pay outstanding federal debts, such as student loans.

“Americans shouldn’t see their Social Security checks ripped away because of the increasing burden of student loan debt,” Wyden said. “People who have worked hard and paid into the program count on these benefits just to survive – there ought to be basic protections to defend struggling Americans from having their earned Social Security benefits cut by the federal government.”

“Americans work hard to earn their Social Security and we cannot allow it to be stolen away by student debt,” Brown said. “Instead of going after seniors and the disabled, the government should be working to address the skyrocketing cost of student debt.”

The bill, the “Protection of Social Security Benefits Restoration Act,” would repeal a decades-old change in law that allowed earned benefits to be garnished by the federal government to collect federal debts, like student loans, home loans owed to the Veterans Administration and food stamp overpayments. 

The number of Americans who have had their benefits garnished by the federal government has dramatically increased in recent years – from 36,000 in 2002 to a staggering 173,000 in 2015 – nearly a fivefold increase. That includes certain people under 65 who receive Social Security Disability Insurance.

Social Security provides vital benefits to millions of Americans who worked and paid into the system.  To support the purpose of the program as a fundamental lifeline, the original law protected these earned benefits from attempts to recover all debts. These changes, made in 1996, were never fully debated in Congress, yet they continue to have a profound effect on beneficiaries living on fixed incomes today. Although the 1996 legislation included some provisions to protect the most vulnerable, those protections have not been updated in 20 years. The legislation reestablishes protections in Social Security and other benefit programs, such as Railroad Retirement and Black Lung Benefits, which were in place for more than 40 years before the change was made.

A summary of the bill can be found here. The legislative text can be found here.

Other original co-sponsors include Sens. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., Bill Nelson, D-Fla., Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, are also sponsoring the bill.

The bill is supported by Social Security Works, The Arc of the United States, Latinos for a Secure Retirement, Puget Sound Advocates for Retirement Action (PSARA), AFL-CIO, The Economic Opportunity Institute, The National Organization for Women, Justice in Aging, Gray Panthers NYC, Alliance for Retired Americans, The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, Global Policy Solutions, AARP, The American Federation of Government Employees, and the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace & Agricultural Implement Workers of America, UAW.