Income is a key factor in determining eligibility for Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a monthly benefit for people who are disabled, blind or 65 and older and in financial straits. The Social Security Administration (SSA), which operates the program, strictly regulates the type and amount of income someone can receive and still qualify for SSI.
There are also income limits that affect eligibility for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), the other disability benefit administered by the SSA. But for SSDI, only earnings from work count.
For SSI, Social Security defines income much more broadly, as “any item an individual receives in cash or in-kind that can be used to meet his or her need for food or shelter.” That includes earnings from work but also money or services you might receive from other sources, such as government programs or family members.
In 2021, the maximum federal SSI benefit is $794 a month for an individual and $1,191 a month for a married couple if both spouses are eligible. (The federal amounts are adjusted annually for inflation; most states add supplementary payments for some beneficiaries.) What the SSA calls “countable income” is deducted from those payments, and if your countable income exceeds the benefit cap, you cannot get SSI.
However, some income is not countable and doesn't affect SSI eligibility or payments. This includes the first $20 you receive per month from most sources and a larger portion of what you make from work, along with other exceptions noted below.
There are four categories of countable income: earned income, unearned income, in-kind income and deemed income.
Earned income primarily means wages from jobs and net earnings from self-employment. It can also include royalties paid to the owner of copyrighted material or natural resources, and honoraria such as a stipend or gift for rendering a service (for example, giving a speech).
However, a sizable share of earned income is not counted. Social Security exempts the first $65 you make from work each month, and one-half of earnings above that. As a result, you can earn as much as $1,673 a month from work in 2021 and still potentially qualify for SSI.
This includes government benefits, such as Social Security payments, unemployment insurance and veterans benefits, as well as pensions, interest income, dividends, workers’ compensation and cash from family and friends. It can also include alimony or child support.
Income from these sources — other than the first $20 a month in most cases — is deducted from your SSI benefit. If you have income only from such nonwork sources, you can receive up to $814 a month and still qualify for SSI.
Tax refunds do not count as unearned income, and there are exceptions for some forms of government and private financial aid, including:
- COVID-19 stimulus payments and other pandemic-related financial assistance
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps
- Home energy assistance
- Disaster assistance
- Grants and scholarships for educational expenses
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This is food or shelter you receive for free or for less than its fair market value. Think of in-kind income as funds that you would otherwise need to earn to pay for life's basic necessities but that are instead being provided by a friend or family member.
For example, if someone outside your household helps cover your rent or mortgage, pays your utility bills or buys your groceries, that could count as in-kind income and be deducted from your SSI.
Loans for this type of support that you have to pay back do not count as in-kind income. Food or shelter provided by a nonprofit organization based on your need is also exempted.
This category comes into play if an SSI beneficiary lives with a spouse or parent, or is an immigrant who receives support from a sponsor as a condition of U.S. residency. In these situations, the SSA may conclude that some of the family member's or sponsor's income is being put toward your care and feeding and deduct it from your SSI benefit.
There are other, highly specific exceptions to what does and doesn't count as income for SSI purposes.
Keep in mind
- Income is not the only financial factor in determining SSI eligibility. You also must have limited resources, meaning cash, savings, stocks, bonds and other assets totaling no more than $2,000 for an individual or $3,000 for a couple.
- Unlike with SSDI, you don't need to have worked for a certain amount of time or paid Social Security taxes to qualify for SSI. The program, though administered by the SSA, is paid for by general U.S. Treasury funds, not Social Security taxes.
Published August 18, 2021