Understanding the Difference between SSDI and SSI

Doug Mann

While many people think of Social Security as a retirement scheme,  it also provides disability benefits through two programs, Social Security Disability Insurance (“SSDI”) and Supplemental Security Income (“SSI”). These are the largest of several Federal programs that provide assistance to people with disabilities. 

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Table of Contents
  1. Social Security Disability Insurance 
  2. Supplemental Security Income

The Social Security Act of 1935 was enacted during the Great Depression to provide a social safety net for Americans who were suffering economically.    

While different in many ways, both SSDI and SSI are administered by the Social Security Administration, and only individuals who have a disability and meet medical criteria may qualify for benefits under either program.

A critical part of obtaining benefits under either of these two Social Security disability programs is proving that you are severely disabled. Under the Act, that is defined as having a physical or mental condition that prevents you from doing any substantial “gainful activity” (work) that will last, or has lasted, at least one year or will cause your death.

Social Security Disability Insurance 

Social Security Disability Insurance pays benefits to people who have already paid taxes into the Social Security system. To obtain benefits, in addition to proving you meet the definition of “disability,” you must have earned enough Social Security work credits to qualify for SSDI. These work credits are based on your total yearly wages or self-employment income. You can earn up to four credits each year.

The amount needed for a work credit changes from year to year. In 2021, for example, you earn one credit for each $1,470 in wages or self-employment income. When you’ve earned $5,880, you’ve earned the necessary four credits for the year.

So how many work credits do you need to qualify for SSDI? It depends on your age when you became disabled. Generally, you need 40 credits, 20 of which were earned in the last 10 years, ending with the year you become disabled. However, younger workers may qualify with fewer credits. 

If you have the required work credits, whether you are eligible for SSDI will depend upon a sequential evaluation of medical and other evidence. When seeking disability benefits, you will be interviewed and asked the following questions:

  • Are you able to perform substantial gainful activity? Generally, if your wages are more than $1,310 per month, you won’t be considered disabled. 
  • Is your impairment severe? For an impairment to be “severe” it must limit your physical or mental ability to perform basic work activities on a sustained basis. A “severe” impairment is more than a slight impact – an impairment is considered ‘non-severe’ if it is a slight abnormality that only minimally affects the ability to do basic work activities.
  • Does your impairment meet or equal the severity of impairments in the Listing of Impairments? The Listing of Impairments describes, for each major body system, impairments considered severe enough to prevent an individual from doing any gainful activity (or in the case of children under age 18 applying for SSI, severe enough to cause marked and severe functional limitations). 
  • Are you able to perform past work? 
  • Are you able to perform any work in the economy? 

Most SSDI recipients receive between $800 and $1,800 per month. The average for 2021 is $1,277. However, if you are receiving disability payments from other sources your payment may be reduced.

Supplemental Security Income

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is needs-based and provides monthly payments to adults and children with a disability or blindness who have income and resources below specified financial limits. SSI payments are also made to people who are age 65 and older without disabilities who meet the financial qualifications.

The funds come from general tax revenues, so you do not have to have made payments into the Social Security system to be eligible for SSI. 

The calculation of “countable income” for purposes of being eligible for SSI, includes income you earn, as well as unearned income, meaning state unemployment benefits, state disability payments, etc. In 2021, individuals with “countable income” over the federal benefit rate (FBR)—$794 for individuals and $1,191 for married couples, in 2021—are not eligible for SSI. Those who have some countable income totaling less than the FBR will have their monthly SSI payments reduced by the amount of their countable income. 

An expert tip from Doug Mann

Your actual monthly SSI payment will also depend on whether you are married, and what state you live in. Not everyone gets the same amount. You may get more if you live in a state that adds money to the federal SSI payment. You may get less if you have other income such as wages, pensions, or Social Security benefits. You may also get less if someone pays your household expenses or if you live with a spouse and he or she has income.

If you have a disabled child and your resources and income are limited, you may apply for assistance under SSI as well. Once approved, SSI payments will continue as long as your child is disabled and has limited means.

Filing a claim for SSDI or SSI without legal counsel is fraught with peril. Most disability cases are denied. But a lawyer knowledgeable in this area of the law can help you prevail in your disability claim. From the initial application to the hearing level and beyond, disability attorneys understand how to present a case in the light most favorable to their clients. Contact us today to help you get the disability benefits you deserve. 

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