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Understanding Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Introduction to Supplemental Security Income

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a benefit paid to children and adults with disabilities and low income and assets. However, benefits may also be available to people older than 65 years of age who do not live with a disability. Supplemental Security Income is administered through the Social Security Administration, and those who are eligible for SSI may also qualify for other Social Security benefits. In fact, the same application form is used for SSI and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). However, the two programs are still different in both design and benefits.

The SSI program includes federal benefits and an additional state supplement in all but a few states. Not every state offers an additional amount to its residents and those that do offer varying amounts based on the cost of living in that state. Further, which benefits an SSI applicant can get depend on that individual’s income, assets, disability and living situation.

Understanding SSI Benefits

SSI payments are updated each year in order to reflect the changes in the national cost of living. The most recent standards for 2022 designate a maximum SSI benefit of $841 a month for qualified individuals, $1,261 for an eligible individual with an eligible spouse and $421 for an essential person. This is a 5.9 percent increase in benefits from 2021, and the raise is effective starting January 1, 2022.

An individual beneficiary’s maximum benefit amount is determined by subtracting countable income. For SSI, countable income is defined as any income you get in the calendar month that can be applied to food and living costs. Countable income does not have to be cash to be calculated against the monthly maximum. Additionally, income that cannot be used for food or shelter is not considered countable. For example, if an eligible individual gets help with his or her medical bills, it will not be counted against his or her benefits.

There are also income exclusions that will not be counted against a beneficiary’s SSI. The income that can be excluded is:

  • The first $65 of earned income each month.
  • More than the first $65, SSI counts half of earned income. For example, the Social Security Administration would subtract the initial $65 from an applicant’s earned monthly income of $299 and then halve the remainder, so the applicant would have $117 of countable income. 
  • Work expenses of the disabled or blind.
  • Income is set aside by a disabled or blind beneficiary in order to achieve financial independence.
  • The first $30 of irregular or infrequent income each quarter.
  • State or locally-funded help, based on need.
  • Food stamps or HUD housing programs.
  • The first $20 of unearned income. “Unearned income” is defined as any income from government benefits, such as SSDI. 

Further, some states pay an additional benefit on top of the federal SSI amount. Each state has its own set of requirements and cost of living index to determine who gets extra SSI payments and the value. Some states pay and administer their supplemental payments. Other states have dual administration or the SSA solely administers the state supplement.

There is no requirement that states offer supplements, however, and the Northern Mariana Islands and six states choose not to offer any additional benefits. These states are:

  • Arizona.
  • Arkansas.
  • Mississippi.
  • North Dakota.
  • Tennessee. 
  • West Virginia.

There are 12 states that offer extra SSI payment amounts, administered by the Social Security Administration. These 12 states are:

  • California.
  • Delaware.
  • District of Columbia.
  • Hawaii.
  • Iowa.
  • Michigan.
  • Montana.
  • Nevada.
  • New Jersey.
  • Pennsylvania.
  • Rhode Island.
  • Vermont.

Of the states listed above, Delaware, the District of Columbia, Iowa, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island are dual administration states. This means that the Social Security office administers some categories of supplement payments while the state administers other categories.

Any state that has not been listed gives state-administered supplemental Social Security income.
The remaining states administer payments on state-specific terms and determine the criteria and amount, and the state determines must resolve any errors. The federal Social Security office does not have control of the state payments or requirements. 

Learn About SSI Benefits Requirements

SSI eligibility has a straightforward set of initial eligibility requirements. Applicants must be older than the age of 65, blind, or disabled as legally defined by the American Disability Act. Candidates also must be United States citizens or resident aliens and have an income that satisfies the SSI income guidelines. Further, applicants must:

  • Live within one of the U.S. states or territories.
  • Apply to all other cash benefits to which he or she may be eligible.
  • Give the SSA permission to contact financial institutions to verify the need.
  • Not be absent from the country for 30 consecutive calendar days.
  • Not be confined to a prison, hospital or other government-funded institution.

Children have additional requirements for SSI. What qualifies a child for SSI? Eligible applicants must satisfy the requirements above, have a disability that is chronic or life-threatening and be younger than 18 years of age or younger than 22 years of age and regularly attend school. Children cannot be married or be the head of a household.

When determining SSI benefits for children, the SSA counts a portion of the parent’s income as if it were available to the child. The income of any stepparents may also be counted if the child resides with the parent and a stepparent.

In order to meet the SSI income limits, an individual applying to SSI may not have more than $2,000 in total assets and a couple may not have more than $3,000 in total assets. Further, the total amount of the applicant’s countable income, as mentioned above, may not exceed the total maximum value of $841 or $1,261 per month.

How to Apply for SSI

Applicants can apply for SSI online, by phone, or in person. However, candidates who choose to visit a local SSA office should anticipate a waiting time. Additionally, which beneficiaries are eligible to apply online is restricted and the deaf or hard of hearing may feel more comfortable applying in person than over the phone. There is no charge to apply, and all applicants have the right to a representative if they feel they need help in the application process.

Please note that you cannot currently apply for SSI for a child online.

To apply by phone or in person, call 1-800-772-1213 to schedule an appointment. Candidates who are deaf or hard of hearing may call 1-800-325-0778 or 1-800-772-1213 to use telecommunication relay services. Alternatively, a candidate may ask a family member, friend, or someone else to call the Social Security Administration on his or her behalf.

To apply online, use the Social Security Disability Benefits page to access the online web portal. In order to be eligible to apply online, the applicant must:

  • Be between 18 and 65 years of age.
  • Never have been married.
  • Not be blind.
  • Be a U.S. Citizen residing in the United States or the Northern Mariana Islands.
  • Not have applied for or gotten benefits in the past.
  • Be applying to SSDI as well.

If you are not eligible to apply online, you can schedule an interview to visit an SSA office. Be sure to bring proof of your identity, disability, income and marital status. These documents can include your marriage license, Social Security card, bank account number, hospital records and the contact information of your doctors.

Learn About SSI, SSDI and Other Programs

Some candidates have dual eligibility and can apply for SSI and SSDI benefits with the same form. Although SSI does not have a work requirement, SSDI is offered only to those who have worked long enough and contributed enough taxes to the system to be “insured.”

Additionally, SSI beneficiaries are eligible for Medicaid benefits in most states. They are also likely to be eligible for food or housing assistance, such as Section 8 or SNAP.

A candidate can claim benefits from all programs they are eligible for, but the added value of the other benefits may be counted towards the individual’s income. Thus, claiming other Social Security benefits will lower the value of SSI payments but may still increase the total benefit value the applicant gets each month.