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The Ins and Outs of Supplemental Security Income

This program provides help for low-income people 65 and older

Social security mailbox; All about SSI benefits

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Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal government benefit program providing cash to meet basic needs to persons who are disabled and have low income.

Q. I keep hearing about a program called SSI. What is SSI and how does it work?

A. SSI stands for Supplemental Security Income. It's a program that was created in 1974 and provides benefits to low-income people who are 65 and older, blind or disabled. Over the years, details have changed, but the emphasis has remained on helping those of us who face major financial and physical challenges. In 2015, about 8.3 million people are receiving SSI benefits.

To qualify for SSI, you must have very few resources. As an individual you can have possessions worth only as much as $2,000, but if you're applying as a couple, the ceiling for jointly held possessions is $3,000.

You must also have a low income. There's a very complex formula concerning what's counted and what isn't in adding up your income, which then determines the amount of a benefit. In 2015, the amount for a person living in his own home with no other income is $733 a month. For a couple the payment rises to $1,100 a month. Generally, the benefit is reduced by the amount of any other income that the household has.

SSI payments are not large, but for people with few or no other resources, they can make a lot of difference. Plus, many states supplement these federal figures with payments of their own.

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Q. When it comes to the things that people own, what does Social Security count?

A. Social Security will count bank accounts, cash, stocks, bonds and real estate that's not your primary residence. But it won't count the value of the home and land where you live, your car, life insurance policies with a face value of $1,500 or less, and up to $3,000 in a couple's burial funds.

Q. How about income?

A. Social Security counts earned income, pensions and other types of income. But it doesn't count such things as the first $20 of regular monthly income, the value of food stamps and home energy assistance, and income tax refunds.

Q. How does the government pay for the SSI program?

A. SSI is financed by U.S. Treasury general revenues. It does not draw on the Social Security taxes that working people pay and that finance general Social Security benefits, such as those that retirees, survivors and disabled people receive. SSI and Social Security are separate programs, but many SSI beneficiaries receive regular Social Security payments at the same time, such as for retirement or disability.

Q. Can a person who receives SSI work?

A. Yes, but a higher income will tend to reduce the amount of the benefit. If you're also getting disability benefits, Social Security encourages you to take advantage of its Ticket to Work program, which provides education, rehabilitation and vocational training aimed at enabling a person to return to work. You can find out more about Ticket to Work by calling its special phone number, 866-968-7842 (TTY 866-833-2967). There's also the website.

Q. I've heard there are special rules if a blind person works. Is that true?

A. Generally speaking, in 2015 a blind worker is allowed to earn up to $1,820 per month without jeopardizing his or her SSI, though this can vary by state. However, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has ways to ease the pressure if such a worker goes over the earnings limit. For instance, if the agency suspends a benefit due to excess earnings, it will suspend it only temporarily, until the worker gets back under the earnings limit. The agency also has other tools, such as the "disability freeze," that it can use to help blind people who continue to work.

Q. How does that work?

A. The freeze is a procedure aimed at helping a blind person get higher benefits in the future. "If your earnings are lower because of your blindness," Social Security says, "we can exclude those years when we calculate your Social Security retirement or disability benefit in the future." This tends to raise a benefit, because Social Security payments are based on average lifetime earnings — which will be higher if low-earnings years are excluded.

Q. Does SSI provide benefits for children?

A. The answer is yes, if they are disabled or blind. But it's not easy for parents to get SSI for their children. One reason is that Social Security has a strict definition of disability, which says that a person's medical condition must be so severe that it is expected to last for 12 months or result in death.

In addition the child's family must meet the SSI limitations on both income and resources. As a result, only 1.3 million out of 74 million children in the United States, or about 2 percent, receive SSI.

Meanwhile, the SSA has begun several programs aimed at helping children who receive SSI to move into adulthood. They include:

  • The Youth Transition Project, which tests ways to help people ages 14 to 25 with disabilities make the transition from school to work.
  • The PROMISE (Promoting Readiness of Minors in SSI) Project. Social Security is working with federal and state agencies to facilitate positive changes in health status, physical and emotional development, and the completion of education and training.

Q. When people receive SSI benefits, what are their responsibilities?

A. Their overall responsibility is to keep the SSA informed of any changes that take place in their personal or family financial situations. If, for instance, a relative moves into your home and contributes to your food expenses, the folks at the SSA will want to know about that. Similarly, they will want to know if there any changes in your job, work or pay. SSI benefits are closely tied to your financial circumstances and living situation.

Q. How do you apply for SSI?

A. There's no online application. So call 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778). For more information, go to and search for "Supplemental Security Income (SSI)" and "What You Need to Know When You Get Supplemental Security Income (SSI)."

Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the AARP Social Security Question and Answer Tool.


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