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Disability benefits aren’t necessarily meant to support you forever. If improved health or workplace adaptations make it possible for you to return to work, the Social Security Administration (SSA) wants to help you do that. Work incentives are SSA programs and policies that let you test the waters and explore your earning potential without putting your benefits at risk.
You are permitted to work while collecting disability benefits, but Social Security limits the amount you can earn. If you are receiving Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), payments can end if you engage in what the SSA deems “substantial gainful activity” (SGA). In 2023, that’s work that pays more than $1,470 per month ($2,460 per month for the statutorily blind).
You can also work and collect Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a safety-net benefit for older, disabled and blind people with limited means, though you must adhere to a complex set of income rules. In 2023, you can lose SSI if you earn more than $1,913 a month from work (The cap may be different if you also have income from nonwork sources, such as investments or government benefits.) If you earn less, your payments can continue but might be reduced.
Some work incentives allow you to keep your disability benefits even if your earnings exceed the caps. Others preserve access to health care coverage when you return to work or make it easier to start benefits again if necessary. Particular programs may be open only to SSI or SSDI recipients, or to both. Here’s a roundup of available incentives.
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SSDI/SSI work incentives
Ticket to Work
The Ticket to Work program features a network of organizations that have an agreement with Social Security to provide employment services to people with disabilities. While participating in the program, you can continue to receive benefits and may not have to undergo a continuing disability review.
Say your disability benefits ended because your earnings exceeded the SSA’s limit. If your work income drops back below the cap within five years, you may be able to resume benefits without filing a new application. You must still have the same impairment that made you eligible for benefits to begin with, or a closely related condition.
Unsuccessful work attempt
Social Security considers a work attempt unsuccessful if, within six months of starting:
- You have to stop work because of your medical condition.
- Your earnings drop below the SGA level because of your medical condition.
The SSA does not count income from an unsuccessful work attempt in making an initial determination of eligibility for SSDI or SSI (that is, in evaluating an application for those benefits) or in determining continued eligibility for SSDI.
Impairment-related work expenses (IRWE)
If you need to purchase certain items to perform work duties — for example, a wheelchair, service animal or paratransit pass — those costs can be deducted from your income to help you remain eligible for benefits. To qualify as an IRWE, the cost can’t be covered by another source such Medicare or private insurance.