When most of us think about Social Security, we tend to think just of the retirement benefits that we can start collecting as early as age 62. But there's more to the Social Security program. Among other things, it pays benefits to surviving spouses and children of qualifying deceased workers, and it also offers Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, to disabled, blind, or elderly people of limited means and also to some blind or disabled children.
Supplemental Security Income, like Social Security retirement benefits, is managed by the Social Security Administration. But it's different in a number of ways. For starters, while retirement benefits are designed for those who have worked enough (and paid Social Security taxes) to qualify for them, whether you receive SSI and how much you receive is not dependent on your work history. Rather, it's dependent on your financial need. (There's a separate Social Security Disability, or SSD, program, that is dependent on your work history.)
While lots of retired Americans collect Social Security benefits -- more than 39 million at last count -- far fewer collect SSI. As of February, about 8.4 million people collected SSI, and the average monthly benefit was $540 (which amounts to $6,480 per year). If you qualify, you can also receive SSI in addition to other benefits, such as your Social Security retirement benefits, Medicaid, food assistance, and so on. Some states offer additional supplemental income, too.
How to qualify
So how does one start collecting SSI? Here are some of the requirements:
- You must be blind, disabled, or aged 65 or older.
- You must have "limited" income and assets.
- You must be a U.S. citizen or national, or "in one of certain categories of qualified non-citizens."
- You must be a legal U.S. resident, not leaving the country for 30 consecutive days or more (or for a full calendar month).
When determining if you're of sufficiently modest means, the program generally expects your assets to be worth $2,000 or less (or less than $3,000 for couples) -- but there's a range of assets that don't count, such as the home and land where you live, low-value life-insurance policies, and burial plots. For income, the limits depend on where you live, and certain kinds of income are excluded from the calculations, such as income used for disability-related items that help you work (such as a wheelchair). There are many rules and details governing income and asset qualification, so look into them if you believe you may qualify.
To determine whether you qualify as sufficiently disabled to collect SSI, the Social Security Administration asks five key questions, listed below. (Note that the rules are different for qualifying children.)
- Are you working? If you are, and you're earning an average of $1,090 per month or less, you may qualify.
- Is your condition "severe"? To qualify, it needs to interfere with your work-related activities.
- Is your condition on the list of disabling conditions? The SSA maintains a list of some conditions that can automatically qualify you for a period of time. A lung transplant, for example, will have you considered disabled for 12 months after your surgery. You can still qualify for SSI if your condition isn't on the list.
- Can you do the work that you used to do? If your condition doesn't interfere with your previous work, then you probably won't qualify.
- Can you do any other kind of work? If you can't do your previous job, the SSA will see whether you might be able to switch to doing some other kind of work.
There's a lot more to know about how Supplemental Security Income and how it works. If you think you or a loved one might qualify, look into the matter further. There's some valuable financial assistance available for many people who need it.