For more than half a century, Social Security disability benefits have served as a lifeline for millions of people with special needs. In fact, Social Security offers two distinctly separate disability benefit programs — each serving nearly 10 million people — with different purposes, eligibility requirements, and benefit levels.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is geared toward people who spent a significant amount of time in the workforce, but are unable to work due to a disability.
To be eligible for SSDI, a person must have been employed for at least 10 years and no longer be able to perform in any “substantial gainful activity” in the workforce as a result of a disability that is expected to last for more than one year or result in death. The Social Security Administration (SSA) typically defines “substantial gainful activity” as being able to earn more than $1,220 monthly (for 2019).
Some adults may also be eligible for SSDI based on their parents’ employment history, provided that the applicant’s disabilities manifested prior to the person turning age 22.
Benefit levels for SSDI are determined based, in part, on the person’s work history and prior earnings. For 2019, the average monthly SSDI payment for individuals is $1,234.
The second program, Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), is the federal government’s main support program for low-income people, including children, with disabilities.
SSI follows the same functional definition of a person with disabilities as does SSDI, but unlike with SSDI, there is no work history requirement. As a result, SSI benefits are significantly lower than those for SSDI beneficiaries. In 2019, the maximum monthly SSI amount for an individual is $771, although many states add a supplement. In addition, to qualify for SSI and maintain eligibility, recipients may not have more than $2,000 in resources.
For both SSI and SSDI, the Ticket to Work program allows adult recipients to temporarily attempt to rejoin the workforce without automatically seeing their benefits cut off.
The two programs also diverge in terms of the health coverage that accompanies them. SSDI recipients are automatically eligible for Medicare after two years. This is not the case for SSI recipients, although almost all will qualify for Medicaid due to their low-income status.
For both programs, recipients are typically transferred into Social Security’s Old-Age benefits program at age 66. This eligibility age will rise to 67 for people born after 1960.
Some people may also be eligible for Social Security survivor benefits if they are the survivor of a spouse, child or parent who dies.
For more information on SSI and SSDI, read the SSA’s 2019 pamphlet “Understanding the Benefits.”