The Social Security Administration (SSA) can take several months, even a year or more, to approve an application for Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). And if your application is denied, it can easily take a couple of years to work your way through the appeals process.
Once you're finally approved, you'll get Social Security back pay (a large lump sum payment to cover those months or years of waiting), but you'll have no disability income in the meantime. So, how do you survive while waiting for your SSDI or SSI disability to be approved? Are there any resources available to help you get by while you wait?
There are a few sources of assistance that can help while you wait for Social Security to approve your disability benefits. But the programs vary by state and are usually based on need (meaning your other income or assets can affect your ability to get financial help).
There's no assistance program specifically designed to help while you're waiting for Social Security to approve your disability benefits. So, you'll have to piece together the assistance you need. Here are some resources that might help you with income and other assistance while you're waiting for disability.
If you haven't reached out to your local Department of Social Services (DSS), you should consider doing so. You might feel uncomfortable about the prospect of asking for assistance, but you shouldn't. Your focus needs to be on what to do for income while you're waiting for your disability benefits to be approved so that you don't go broke.
When you visit DSS, ask if you can speak with an Adult Services Social Worker. (Every social services agency is different, but many have departments that specialize in helping adults in need.) Adult services social workers can sometimes refer you to privately run assistance programs and charitable organizations that help people who need money or other assistance while waiting for disability benefits.
If you live in one of the five states that provide (or require employers to provide) short-term disability benefits (also called temporary disability insurance), your local DSS office can help you with the application for short-term benefits. Currently, state-mandated short-term disability is only available in:
Each state program operates differently, but generally, these programs can replace some of your income while you're waiting for Social Security disability.
Previously known as "welfare," public assistance (called General Assistance or General Relief in some areas) is a state-run program that pays a limited amount of benefits (cash) to people in need who don't have children. The amount of the benefit and how long it can be paid varies widely by state and even county.
If you've filed for SSI benefits, you might be able to get a cash payment through the Interim Assistance Reimbursement (IAR) program. (IAR isn't available if you've only applied for SSDI.) The IAR program is essentially a short-term loan that you'll be expected to repay from your SSI back pay.
Once your SSDI or SSI benefits are approved, Social Security will repay the IAR and then send you any remaining back pay you're owed. To qualify, your state agency must believe you're likely to get SSI benefits, because if Social Security denies your SSI disability claim, you don't have to pay the loan back.
The TANF program (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) is federally funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). TANF provides cash assistance to low-income families with children, for a limited period of time. You can use the cash to pay for your living expenses.
Although it's federally funded, each state runs its own TANF program, and as a result, there are differences between the states regarding:
You can learn more about TANF, including how to get assistance in your state, by using HHS's interactive map.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly called food stamps, is a nutrition assistance program administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). SNAP benefits can help you survive while you're waiting for disability approval by helping you put food on your table.
To qualify for SNAP, you'll need to meet certain income and asset limits. But those vary somewhat from state to state. For instance, some states won't count your car as an asset. And some states allow you to deduct child support payments from your total income, while others don't.
You should qualify for SNAP benefits if you're financially eligible for SSI or TANF benefits, because the income and resource limits are similar. You'll also likely qualify for this food assistance program if you have little to no income while waiting for SSDI disability benefits to be approved.
Get more information and apply for SNAP benefits at your local SNAP office. You can also apply for SNAP benefits at most Social Security offices.
If you're no longer working because of a disability, you might not have access to health insurance. You might be able to get help covering medical costs through the Medicaid program.
Medicaid provides health insurance (and sometimes dental coverage) to individuals with low incomes. There are two ways to apply for Medicaid. You can:
Each state runs its own Medicaid program, so eligibility will vary depending on where you live. But if you qualify for SSI, TANF, or SNAP, you should qualify for Medicaid too.
Another public assistance program administered by HHS that you might benefit from is the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP). This program is available to low-income households in all U.S. states and territories (as well as the District of Columbia).
LIHEAP helps low-income households with heating and cooling costs in several ways, including:
If you qualify (or a member of your family qualifies) for SNAP, TANF, or SSI benefits, you might automatically be eligible for help from LIHEAP. HHS has an interactive map you can use to find the LIHEAP program in your area. Learn more about getting help with rent and utility costs while you wait for Social Security to make a decision on your claim.
While waiting for disability, it's sometimes possible to get assistance (money) from private charitable organizations. Some organizations will assist with:
Generally, to get financial assistance from charitable organizations while waiting on your disability to start, you must show that you have a real need. Sometimes it's one-time help only, but it's worth checking into.
You should consider contacting the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation (VR) in your state. If you qualify, VR offers a variety of assistance programs.
VR assistance can include helping you get examined by a physician to determine the extent of your limitations. The exam report could prove very useful in making your disability case. And "voc rehab" counselors are generally willing to provide such information when asked by either the Social Security disability examiner or your disability attorney (or non-attorney representative).
You can find the contact information for your state's Department of Vocational Rehabilitation in our state disability resource lists.
If you own your home and you've built up some equity, you might consider using some of that equity to make ends meet while you're waiting for Social Security to approve your disability benefits. A home equity line of credit (HELOC) allows you to tap into your home's equity for a specified borrowing period (usually about ten years).
But using a HELOC as income while you're waiting for disability can be risky, because you might not be able to repay the equity you borrow if Social Security doesn't approve your disability application. If you can't repay the loan, you could lose your house.
If you're a homeowner, but you don't have enough equity or aren't comfortable using a HELOC, you could still get some relief by asking your mortgage lender for a loan forbearance. Forbearance would allow you to reduce or suspend your monthly mortgage payments while you wait for disability benefits. But note that your loan would likely continue to accrue interest during the forbearance period and that could significantly raise your mortgage payments down the road.
The wait for disability benefits is typically very long—generally lasting from several months to a few years. To ensure you can survive while waiting for disability approval, you should analyze your personal finances and plan for the long haul.
You might need to cut back on expenses, get some kind of public assistance, or take out a loan to make sure you can keep your bills paid while you wait for the SSDI and/or SSI determination processes to be completed. Learning about the financial assistance programs that could be available to you can help you decide what to do for income while you're waiting for disability.
Updated October 5, 2022