Social Security has evolved dramatically over its 85-year history. Initially seen as a safety net, Social Security now serves a vital purpose in supplying a substantial portion of the regular income that older Americans receive after they retire. It doesn't matter whether you're rich, poor, or somewhere in between -- if you've worked long enough to meet the eligibility requirements, then Social Security benefits are available to you.

Yet there's another set of benefits that the Social Security Administration is in charge of paying out. The Supplemental Security Income program is designed with a much different goal in mind: protecting those who need financial assistance the most, with some additional payments that can supplement regular Social Security.

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What is Supplemental Security Income?

Supplemental Security Income pays extra benefits to low-income seniors and others who are in financial need. At first glance, eligibility for SSI looks a lot like the rest of Social Security, with monthly benefits potentially available to anyone who's 65 or older, disabled, or blind.

It's common for many recipients to get both regular Social Security and SSI benefits, but the programs are quite different. The biggest difference between SSI and regular Social Security is that you don't have to have any work history at all to qualify to receive SSI benefits. That stands in stark contrast to normal Social Security, which typically requires either you or your spouse to have a 10-year work history paying payroll taxes into the Social Security system.

In addition, although Social Security is purely a federal program, there are several aspects of SSI that involve integration between federal and state governments. States have the option of adding extra amounts to the standard federal SSI benefit amount. Also, many states tie eligibility for other assistance programs to SSI, so that those who qualify for SSI can also receive healthcare or food assistance as well.

How can I get Supplemental Security Income benefits?

There are a couple of tests you have to meet in order to get SSI benefits. The financial resources test limits the amount of savings you can have and still be eligible to receive SSI. Currently, the general limit for financial assets is $2,000 for individuals and $3,000 for couples. However, the program allows you to have certain exempt assets that don't count toward that total, including your home, a vehicle, life insurance, burial funds, and various household items. In addition, certain tax benefits aren't counted, and there are some special types of financial accounts that are specifically designed to allow SSI recipients to build up savings without jeopardizing their eligibility.

The second test involves how much income you're allowed to have. Here, the key issue is whether what the program calls countable income exceeds a given threshold. Below are some of the items you're allowed to have as income without it counting against your SSI benefit:

  • Up to $20 per month of unearned income
  • Up to $65 per month of earned income from work, plus half of earnings above $65
  • Refunds resulting from claiming the earned income tax credit
  • Grants or scholarships for educational expenses
  • Any state assistance based on need

Note, though, that any money you receive from regular Social Security benefits does typically get added to countable income.

How much will I receive from SSI?

Each year, there's a standard federal benefit for SSI. In 2020, the amounts are $783 per month for individuals or $1,175 per month for married couples.

However, you have to reduce those amounts by the countable income calculated above. Again, though, people in some states can end up getting more than these amounts if the state government adds extra benefits on top of the federal amount.

Don't miss out on SSI

Social Security is no longer a needs-based program, but Supplemental Security Income definitely is. If you're struggling to get by, see whether SSI can help you get more money to help you cover the living expenses that are so hard to pay.