Updated January 8, 2019
Social Security will not cut off your SSI benefits if you earn over the substantial gainful activity (SGA) if you have already started to receive SSI disability benefits, but Social Security will not approve a pending SSI claim (initial application) if you are earning over the SGA limit (unless the disability is blindness). That said, you are not allowed to make over the income limit for SSI, and you must continue to be disabled despite being able to work some. The income limit may not be much higher than the SGA amount, however, depending on your state.
Social Security will adjust your SSI benefit by the amount of the income you are earning (after the agency confirms that you are still disabled and still meet the income and resource limits for SSI). The general rule is that Social Security reduces the amount of your monthly SSI benefit by about half of the amount of your monthly income. But Social Security has special rules about how it counts earned income (wages), and those rules will affect how much SSI you get while you work.
Social Security does not count the first $65 of earned income every month, and it only counts half of the earned income you earn over $65 per month. In addition, Social Security has disregards $20 of any income, earned or unearned per month.
For example, if you receive the maximum 2019 federal benefit amount of $771 (this would happen only if your state does not pay a state supplement and you have no countable income), and you then begin to earn $200 at a job every month, your countable income would be $57.50, so you would receive only $713.50 in SSI. (Again, Social Security disregards the first $20 of any kind of income, the first $65 of earned income, and only counts 50% of the remainder.) In essence, your SSI payment will be reduced any month in which you make more than $85, but you can generally make about $1,625 per month before your SSI gets reduced to nothing.
Social Security has more generous rules about how it counts income for people under age 22 who are regularly attending school. If you are under 22 and are attending school or in a training course, you can exclude up to $1,870 of earned income per month, up to a maximum yearly amount of $7,550 (in 2019).
In addition, Social Security will exclude income equal to the amount that you need to pay for work expenses related to your disability that are not reimbursed by anyone else. Social Security calls these “impairment-related work expenses.” For instance, an inpairment-related work expense would be the cost of what you have to pay someone to drive you to work because your disability prevents you from taking public transportation. To learn more, read our article on impairment-related work expenses.
Blind recipients do not need to show that their work expenses are related to their blindness (these expenses are called blind work expenses, or BWE). For instance, they can deduct work expenses like lunch money and union dues from their income.
If you want to avoid having your SSI reduced, you should consider asking Social Security to let you participate in the Plan to Achieve Self-Support (“PASS”) Program. Under this program, Social Security does not count money that you put towards an employment goal if the goal would eventually let you support yourself without SSI.
To use the example above, if you are earning $200 per month as a dishwasher, but you are using that money to pay for cooking school, then you could complete an application for a PASS from Social Security and still get the whole $771 per month from SSI. You need to apply for a PASS using Form SSA-545-BK, and Social Security needs to approve it.
For more information on the PASS program as well as other Social Security incentives to get SSI recipients with disabilities back to work, see our article on SSI work incentives.