What is Supplemental Security Income?

Social security administration

Supplemental Security Income, or SSI as it is commonly known, provides extra financial security for people who are blind, disabled, or over age 65 who lack the resources to cover basic needs. When Social Security was put in place in 1935, that extra measure of security was expected to be provided by the states; but those state policies became a patchwork that provided irregular assistance. That changed in 1972 when the federal government created the SSI program. 

Social Security benefits and SSI

While SSI isn’t exactly Social Security, the Social Security Administration (SSA) and SSI are connected in several ways: 

  • The SSA administers SSI.
  • People who apply for SSI are required to also apply for other assistance they may be eligible for, including Social Security benefits.
  • The application for SSI is also an application for Social Security benefits.

Here’s how SSI and Social Security (more on social security here) are different:

The funds to pay for Social Security come from taxes collected over years of someone’s working life. Those taxes become a form of insurance to provide for them, or for members of their family, when they can no longer work or when they reach a certain age. 

SSI is related to a person’s current resources and ability to work, but not based on anyone’s previous work history. SSI funds come out of general tax revenues, not the Social Security taxes that have been collected.

SSI recipients in some states may receive additional help specifically to address their needs, including Medicaid to pay for health costs, a state-funded supplemental payment, and food assistance.

In 2019, 64 million people received Social Security benefits. Only about eight million people received SSI. Roughly a third of those who received SSI also received Social Security benefits.

How do you receive SSI payments? 

If you’re approved for SSI, you must receive your payments electronically via direct deposit, the Direct Express card program, or an Electronic Transfer Account. For more information, visit www.GoDirect.org. Payments are made at the first of each month.

SSI program eligibility

The SSI program has specific criteria that apply across the board for applicants. If you are over the age of 65, you must meet the tests for residency, income, and resources. If you are applying because you are blind or disabled, someone from the administration will need to speak to your health care providers.

For SSI purposes, blindness is defined as a central visual acuity for distance of 20/200 or less in your better eye with use of a correcting lens; or tunnel vision of 20 degrees or less. Disability is defined as having a medically determinable physical or mental impairment (including an emotional or learning problem) that: 

  • Renders you unable to do any substantial gainful activity; (or in the case of children, causes marked and severe functional limitations) and
  • can be expected to result in death; or
  • has lasted or can be expected to last for a continuous period of not less than 12 months.

This is only the broadest definition, and there are many qualifiers. If alcohol or drug use is a factor in your disability, for example, you’re disqualified from receiving SSI.

Because it can take three to five months to get a decision on an SSI application, the Social Security Administration has a program entitled Compassionate Allowances (CAL) that speeds the process in certain cases. CAL is designed to quickly identify conditions that, by definition, meet Social Security’s standards for disability benefits including certain cancers, adult brain disorders, and a number of rare disorders that affect children.

There are also residency tests. Recipients must be a U.S. citizen or national, or someone in certain categories of aliens. They must be a legal resident of one of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, or the Northern Mariana Islands who is not absent from the country for 30 consecutive days or more (or a full month). Recipients can’t be confined to an institution such as a hospital or prison at the government’s expense. Also anyone who is not a citizen must be in a qualified alien category, and meet a condition that allows qualified aliens to get SSI benefits.

Income and SSI 

For 2020, the monthly allowance for an individual receiving SSI is $783; for an eligible couple it’s $1,175. 

You can only qualify to receive an SSI allowance if you meet certain income and resources requirements, some of which vary from state to state. The amount of benefit you receive each month will be impacted by your income and resources.

Income limits

The SSA defines income as any item that can be applied, either directly or by selling assets, to meet the basic needs of food or shelter. This includes:

  • Earned Income — wages, net earnings from self–employment, certain royalties, and honoraria.
  • Unearned Income — such as Social Security benefits, pensions, State disability payments, unemployment benefits, interest income, dividends and cash from friends and relatives.
  • In–Kind Income — food or shelter that you get for free or less than its fair market value.
  • Deemed Income — the part of the income of a person you live with including a spouse, parent, or sponsor that is considered in the SSI amount calculation.

Many forms of income are not counted including: 

  • The first $65 of earnings and one–half of earnings over $65 received in a month.
  •  The value of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) received.
  • Assistance based on need funded by a State or local government, or an Indian tribe.
  • Small amounts of income received irregularly or infrequently.
  • Loans you have to repay.

The SSA subtracts the income that they don’t count from the income they do count. Then they subtract the income they do count from the SSI Federal benefit rate ($783 for an individual). That tells them how much to pay for SSI.

SSA also calculates the value of your resources — things you own such as:

  • cash
  • bank accounts, stocks, U.S. savings bonds
  • vehicles
  • anything else you own that could be converted to cash and used for food or shelter.


To get SSI, your countable resources must not be worth more than $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a couple. Not all of your resources are included, however. The SSA does not include:

  • The home you live in and the land it is on.
  •  A single vehicle.
  • Personal belongings and effects such as wedding rings.
  • Up to $100,000 of funds in an Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) account established through a State ABLE program.

They may also count part of your parent’s or spouse’s resources if you live with them.

SSI for children

Children can be eligible for SSI disability benefits from birth and can qualify until they are 18, at which point they are considered an adult. If they are enrolled in school full time, that age limit increases to 22 or until they marry. The SSA considers a portion of the parents’ and/or stepparent’s income and resources as if they were available to the child. They call this process of calculation of income and resources “deeming.” For example, the Deeming Chart shows that the largest amount of gross monthly earned income for a home with one child is: 

  •  $3,595 for a home with one parent
  • $4,367 for a home with two parents


And in a home where the income is not earned, the monthly allowance is 

  • $1,968 for a home with one parent
  • $2,354 for a home with two parents


But when the family has both earned and unearned income, or receives government support such as food stamps, the income requirements change.

States operate differently in terms of how they administer benefits to children. In some states, Medicaid is available to pay for children’s health costs. Some states supplement the benefit for children.


Social Security Disability Income is a monthly payment for a disabled person based on a worker’s lifetime average earnings covered by Social Security. The money might go toward care of the worker or it might go toward care of one of the worker’s dependents. SSI is based solely on disability and income and not on payments into the Social Security system. SSDI funds come from the Social Security system, while SSI funds do not.

States do not supplement payments for recipients of SSDI, but they may for SSI. It is possible to receive both SSDI and SSI payments.

How to apply for SSI 

You can apply for SSI benefits by applying online, which is likely to give you the fastest results. You can also call 1-800-772-1213 (or TTY 1-800-325-0778 if you are deaf or hard of hearing) and making an appointment to apply. SSA also will take telecommunications relay services (TRS) assisted calls from people who are deaf or hard of hearing at 1-800-772-1213.

If you make an appointment, someone from SSA can help with the application. Going to an SSA office without an appointment will incur longer wait times.

You will need to apply for a Social Security number if you do not have one. If you need one, a number will be assigned at the time Social Security entitles you to SSI benefits.

The application process 

You will need to provide the SSA with original documents showing:

  •  Proof of age, such as a birth certificate.
  •  Citizenship or alien status record, such as a birth certificate, baptism certificate, passport, or current immigration document such as an I-551 or a military discharge paper.
  • Proof of income such as payroll stubs, tax returns, award letters for unearned income.
  • Proof of resources such as bank statements, deeds, insurance policies.
  • Proof of living arrangements including a lease or rent or names, date of birth, medical assistance cards and Social Security numbers for all household members.
  • Medical sources if you are filing as blind or disabled.
  • Work history including job titles, names of employers, hours worked, and job descriptions.
  • If you are applying on behalf of a child you will also need information from caregivers and teachers.


The process for applying for SSI can be time consuming and difficult, but can provide needed resources to make life far easier in the long run. Someone from the Social Security Administration can help you complete the requirements.