Social Security is one of the most widely utilized federal programs in the U.S., with more than 60 million people currently receiving benefits, and nearly all of us expecting to get financial support from the program in the future. However, one program that the Social Security Administration also administers largely flies under the radar. The Supplemental Security Income plays a vital role in providing additional income to those in dire financial need, and those who qualify could get a small increase in their SSI benefits in 2019.

With the end of the year approaching, SSI recipients just learned what annual adjustments the SSA is making to the program. SSI benefit amounts for 2019 will rise slightly, coming in at $771 per month for individuals and $1,157 per month for couples. Those numbers are higher by $21 and $32 per month respectively compared to what they were in 2018, but not everyone who's eligible to receive SSI will get those full benefits. Instead, as you'll see below, what you get is determined based on other financial resources, as well as where you live.

Two older people next to a picture of a Social Security card framework around the $1 bill picture of George Washington.

Image source: Getty Images.

The basics of SSI

For many older Americans, regular Social Security payments are enough of an income addition that they can make ends meet.

However, if that financial support leaves someone well shy of being able to subsist, they can request assistance from the Supplemental Security Income program. To qualify for SSI, you must be 65 or older, or be disabled or blind -- so most potential recipients either receive or are eligible to get regular Social Security benefits on account of being retired or disabled. You must also demonstrate that you have limited income and resources to meet your basic financial needs.

There are, however, some people who do qualify for SSI but don't for regular Social Security benefits. One reason is that, unlike Social Security, which requires a certain length of work history, there's no specified minimum length of employment a person has to reach in order to get SSI payments.

Also, the federal SSI program is only one part of the patchwork of federal and state programs designed to provide people with financial support. Thus, some participants receive more than the federal minimum amounts, because the states in which they live add to the funds that their SSI recipients can receive.

2 tests for SSI

There are two primary tests that potential SSI recipients must pass in order to get benefits. First, there's a limit on the amount of asset you may own: $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples. That may sound extraordinarily low, but not everything you own is included in the calculation: Among the exempt assets are your home, a vehicle, and household and personal items that are considered "ordinary." Moreover, if you have a life insurance policy, a burial fund, or a scholarship or educational grant, those aren't counted toward the limit either.

Where things get seriously restrictive is with the second test, which has to do with income. If your countable income exceeds the $771 or $1,157 maximum monthly benefit amounts, then you can't receive any SSI benefits. However, even if your countable income is less than those maximums, your benefit will get reduced. As a result, only a small portion of SSI recipients actually get the full $771 or $1,157 payments.

In determining what counts as income, the SSI program has some complex rules. The first $20 of income you get each month typically doesn't count, regardless of source. If you work, then you don't have to count the first $65 you make each month, and above that, only half of your earnings count toward the limit. Most need-based federal or state assistance benefits don't count, nor does investment income from whatever financial resources you have. Finally, if you're a student under age 22, in 2019, you will be able to exclude up to $1,870 in earnings per month, up to an annual total of $7,550. (There are certain other income sources that don't count for the purposes of this calculation: The Social Security Administration provides a full list here.)

Once you've excluded whatever income you're allowed to, whatever is left is deducted from the federal maximum benefit (plus any added amount your state may tack on). So as a simple example, if you have $200 in countable income after exemptions, and you're eligible only for the individual federal benefit, then you'd get $750 minus $200, or $550 per month from SSI.

Get the help you need

As you can see, the payments from Supplemental Security Income to its beneficiaries typically won't be huge. But for those in need, even that modest support is critical. If you qualify, be sure to apply for the SSI benefits you're entitled to, and make your financial life a little easier to navigate.