The Social Security Administration provides two types of disability benefits for people who can't work—Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Eligibility for SSDI is determined based on your work history—specifically, through work credits. You'll need to have a certain amount of work credits in order to qualify for SSDI benefits.
SSDI is run as an insurance program for workers, and "work credits" are the SSDI equivalent of an insurance premium. SSDI is funded by Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA) taxes that come out of your paycheck (or by self-employment taxes if you work for yourself). So as long as you're earning money and paying taxes, you'll be covered by SSDI if you become disabled.
The amount of money required to earn a work credit changes every year. In 2023, one work credit represents $1,640 in earned income.
If you stop working—and, by extension, contributing into the SSDI program—you'll stop earning work credits and eventually won't be able to get disability benefits from SSDI. But because the income needed to get one work credit is fairly low, you can get work credits doing part-time or seasonal work.
You can earn up to four work credits per year in order to remain insured under SSDI. You can spread out these earnings over the course of one year—$1,640 per quarter—or you can earn all four credits ($6,560) in a single quarter. Ultimately, how much money you make is more important than what quarter you earned it in.
Unsurprisingly, you can get more work credits by working more. You don't have to work full-time in order to get additional work credits, but if you're applying for disability benefits, be careful not to bump up against Social Security's substantial gainful activity threshold ($1,470 per month in 2023). Earning more than that amount signals to Social Security that your condition might not be disabling and puts your claim at risk.
Work credits are tied to an important concept in Social Security disability law called the date last insured (DLI). Your DLI is the date that your SSDI coverage "expires." In order to receive SSDI benefits, you need to show that you became disabled before your DLI. If you don't have enough work credits from the past five years, you'll no longer be insured for SSDI.
SSI is a needs-based disability program available to people with limited income and assets. You don't need to have work credits in order to get SSI benefits, but you'll need to show that you have less than $2,000 in the bank ($3,000 for couples). However, Social Security won't count all sources of income towards the limit.
Because you can work up to a certain amount while also receiving SSI benefits, you can earn work credits towards SSDI while you're currently receiving SSI. If you get enough work credits to qualify for SSDI, Social Security will notify you (usually during a redetermination review), and you'll receive back due benefits for any months that you were eligible for SSDI but didn't receive payment.
Updated March 3, 2023