SSI, or Supplemental Security Income, is a type of disability benefit paid to qualifying individuals whose household income falls below a certain level. It is different from Social Security disability insurance, or SSDI, which is paid out of the Social Security trust fund and is available to those who have worked (and paid FICA taxes) for a required minimum number of years.
The SSI program has strict limits on the amount of income and assets you can have and be eligible for SSI. Determining whether you fall within SSI’s income limits (as well as figuring out what your SSI payment might be) is pretty complicated. While we’ll go over the key principles here, your claims representative at the Social Security Administration (SSA) can tell you whether you will qualify under the income limits for SSI after looking at your finances.
The income limit for the SSI program is based on something called the federal benefit rate (FBR). The federal benefit rate represents both the SSI income limit and the maximum federal monthly SSI payment. In 2017, the FBR is $735 per month for individuals and $1,103 for couples. (The FBR increases annually if there is a Social Security cost-of-living adjustment.)
To qualify for SSI, your countable monthly income cannot exceed the FBR. However, the SSA counts only some of your income when it determines whether your income is over the income limit. For instance, if you are earning money from work, less than half of your monthly earnings are counted toward the income limit, so you can make more than $735 per month (in 2017). This makes it difficult to know for sure whether your income falls under the SSI income limit. (To find out which of your income is counted, see our article on What Counts as Income Toward the SSI Income Limit.)
In addition, if you are participating in the Plan to Achieve Self Support (PASS) program, SSI allows you to set aside funds to help you get back to work; these funds won't count toward your income or asset limit for SSI.
There is another wrinkle that alters the income limits in most states: the state supplement.
Most states add money to the federal SSI payment; this is called a state supplement. This means that the allowed income level, as well as the SSI payments, are higher than the federal maximums in those states. Every state except Arizona, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia has a state supplement.
The amount of the state supplement varies between states, from $10 to $400. (The SSA manages the state supplement for some states; for those states, you can see the state supplement amounts on the SSA’s website.) In addition, the amount of the state supplement can depend on whether you are single or married and on your living arrangements. For instance, some states pay a supplement only to those living in a nursing home. For these reasons, unless you live in a state without a state supplement, it might be difficult for you to estimate whether your income falls under the SSI limit.
For 2016, if an individual has only earnings income, he or she can earn up to around $1,500 per month and still be eligible for a small SSI benefit (depending on the type of disability and whether his or her state has a state supplement). This is because Social Security allows you to deduct part of your earnings from being counted toward SSI. For example, an individual earning $1,500 per month could subtract $65 of earned income, subtract another $20 for earned or unearned income, and then subtract half of the remainder, which works out to almost $710 of countable income. This number is lower than the federal benefit rate ($735), which is also the SSI income limit, so the individual would be entitled to a small SSI payment of $25. So, those who earn less than $1,500 per month are eligible for a decreased SSI benefit.
Remember, $735 is the federal maximum, but if you live in a state with a state supplement, the amount may be higher.
However, when Social Security first considers your eligibility for SSI, there is a lower limit for work income: the substantial gainful activity limit.
If an SSI applicant has monthly earnings of $1,170 or more in 2017, the applicant is considered to be engaging in “substantial gainful activity,” and won't be considered disabled. (For more information, see our article on income limits due to substantial gainful activity.)
However, after one month of receiving SSI benefits, an SSI recipient can work and make more than $1,170 without losing disability benefits (under Section 1619 of the Social Security Act), as long as the recipient is still considered disabled. But continuing SSI recipients are still bound by the $1,500 limit discussed above (if the recipient lives in a state that doesn't pay an SSI state supplement; in states that do pay the supplement, the limit may be higher). But remember, an SSI recipient's countable income will be deducted from his or her SSI payment, meaning that the SSI payment will be less than the full amount.
Blind SSI applicants are allowed to make up to $1,950 per month (in 2017) before they are considered to be performing SGA. However, the upper income limit for all SSI applicants is still a little over $1,500 per month (in states that don't pay an SSI supplement). (Remember, if an SSI applicant makes more than $1,500 per month, their counted income would be too high for SSI.) However, many blind applicants have impairment-related blind work expenses (BWE), which can be deducted from their countable income. Examples of BWE include the cost of visual and sensory aids or service animals.
When a child SSI applicant (under the age of 18) who is living with his or her parents applies for SSI, part of the parents’ income is considered toward the income limit for SSI.
Likewise, marriage can have a strong effect on your financial eligibility for SSI. SSI considers your entire household's income and resources, not just yours. In addition, the FBR for a married couple is approximately one and a half times the individual FBR, not twice the amount, as it should be. Even if only one member of a couple is medically eligible for disability benefits, both spouses’ incomes are considered to be part of your countable income. (However, only part of a spouse’s income is “deemed” to be available for your use. For more information, see our article on the deeming of marital income.)
Learn more about qualifying for SSI.