Supplemental Security Income (SSI)


SSI is the basic federal safety net program for the elderly, blind and disabled, providing them with a minimum guaranteed income. For 2014, the maximum federal SSI benefit is $721 a month for an individual and $1,082 a month for a couple. These amounts are supplemented in most states.  For example, Pennsylvania adds a supplement of $22.10 a month for eligible individuals.

Although the Social Security Administration (SSA) administers the program, eligibility for SSI benefits is based on financial need, not on how long you have worked or how much you have paid into the Social Security system. However, the financial eligibility rules are very stringent. If you are seeking SSI benefits because you are disabled, you must demonstrate to the SSA’s satisfaction that you are disabled. This evaluation focuses on whether an individual is capable of being gainfully employed. The criteria are very detailed; typically, a disabled recipient must earn less than $1,000 a month from work.  For more details, see the SSA’s “Information You Need to Apply for Disability Benefits.”

Many seniors who aren’t eligible for Social Security retirement benefits because they have not accumulated enough work credits, may nevertheless be eligible for SSI, and many of those receiving Social Security retirement benefits may be able to supplement their benefits with SSI payments.

Most states supplement the federal SSI payment with payments of their own. The states that do not pay a supplement are Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota and West Virginia.  In some states that do pay a supplement, you may qualify for the state payment even if you don’t meet the federal SSI eligibility criteria. But even in those states that supplement the federal payment, the total SSI benefit usually falls below the poverty level.

The idea of the SSI program is to provide a floor income level. If you are receiving unearned income from another source, such as interest, dividends or rent, your SSI benefit will be cut dollar for dollar. In addition, the SSA deems food and shelter you receive from another source to be “in kind” income. As a result, actual payment amounts vary depending on your income, living arrangements, and other factors.

While the SSI program’s benefits are scanty, in most states, including Pennsylvania, SSI recipients are also automatically eligible to receive Medicaid, which can pay for hospital stays, doctor bills, prescription drugs, nursing home care, and other health costs. SSI recipients may also be eligible for food stamps in every state except California and in some cases for special programs for the developmentally delayed.

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