The SSI program has strict limits on the amount of income and assets you can have and be eligible for SSI. Generally, those who earn less than $1,650 per month are eligible for a decreased SSI benefit, but determining whether you fall within SSI's income limits (as well as figuring out what your SSI payment might be) is pretty complicated. We'll go over the key principles here, but know that 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 the federal benefit rate (FBR). The federal benefit rate represents both the SSI income limit and the maximum federal monthly SSI payment. In 2021, the FBR is $794 per month for individuals and $1,191 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. (This is called the earned income exclusion. Also, the SSA ignores some types of income altogether; see our article on what income counts toward the SSI 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 $794 per month.
For 2021, if an individual only has income from work, he or she can earn up to $1,655 per month and still be eligible for a very small SSI benefit. This is because Social Security allows you to deduct part of your earnings from being counted toward SSI. Here's an example to help you see how income reduces your benefit. An individual earning $1,650 per month from work can subtract $65 of earned income, subtract another $20 for earned or unearned income, and then subtract half of the remainder. This works out to $782.50 of countable income. This number is slightly lower than the federal benefit rate ($794), so the individual would be entitled to an SSI payment of $11.50.
Here's another example with less income. An individual earning $825 per month from work would have $370 of countable income. This number is substantially lower than the federal benefit rate ($794), so the individual would be entitled to an SSI payment of $424.
When Social Security first considers your eligibility for SSI, however, there is a lower limit for work income: the substantial gainful activity limit (more on this below).
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.
And there is another wrinkle that raises 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 about $10 to about $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.
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 SSI income limit. For the amount of income that will be deemed to a child, see our article on family income deeming.
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. Even if only one member of a couple is medically eligible for disability benefits, both spouses' incomes are considered to be part of the applicant's 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. (Not only that, but the SSI benefit amount for a married couple is approximately one and a half times the individual benefit amount, not twice the amount.)
While the SSI income limit always applies, when the SSA first considers whether an applicant is disabled, the agency will apply a different limit to the amount of earned income: the substantial gainful activity (SGA) limit. The income limit determines whether you are financially eligible for SSI, while the SGA limit helps determine whether you are too disabled to make much income and, therefore, are medically eligible for SSI.
If an SSI applicant has monthly earnings of $1,310 or more in 2021, 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 starting to receive SSI benefits, the SGA no longer applies. An SSI recipient can work and make more than $1,310 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 bound by the SSI limit discussed above (currently $1,650)—for recipients who live in a state that doesn't pay an SSI state supplement. But remember, an SSI recipient's countable income will be deducted from his or her SSI payment, meaning that those who work will receive an SSI payment that's less than the full amount.
Blind SSDI applicants are allowed to make up to $2,190 per month (in 2021) and still be considered disabled, but this SGA limit does not apply to blind SSI applicants or recipients.
The upper income limit for SSI applicants—about $1,650 per month—does apply to blind SSI applicants and recipients. But many blind applicants and recipients have significant impairment-related blind work expenses (BWE), which can be deducted from their countable income to lower their income so that it does't lower their SSI payment as much. Examples of BWE include the cost of visual and sensory aids, service animals, and the cost of special transportation to and from work.
Updated January 26, 2021