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How to qualify for government programs SSI and SSDI

SSI and SSDI provide payments to people that meet requirements.

Two shots: One of a woman in a wheelchair and a lose-up of a Social Security Disability Claim form being signed with a pen. Credit: Reviewed / Getty Images / designer491 / Edwin Tan

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If you have a short-term disability or a long-term disability that renders you unable to work, you may qualify for government assistance programs Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Let’s examine each of these federal disability programs and break down what you need to know before applying.

What is SSI?

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People with disabilities may qualify for government assistance programs SSI and SSDI.

Supplemental Security Income is a federal program that provides a monthly cash benefit for people who qualify. The cash is provided to meet basic needs such as food, clothing, and shelter.

“[It] provides a cash benefit to people who have been determined to be disabled and have both limited income and limited resources but do not have enough work credits to be approved for SSDI,” says Erin Bradshaw, chief of mission delivery at the Patient Advocate Foundation.

Work credits are defined based on the taxable income you’ve earned and paid Social Security taxes on.

Who qualifies for SSI?

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To qualify for SSI or SSDI, you must meet certain requirements.

SSI offers monthly payments to children and adults with a disability who meet certain income and resource requirements. To qualify for SSI as an individual, your resources, i.e., your total assets and savings, must be worth $2,000 or less. To receive SSI as a couple, you must both meet disability and income requirements, and a couple's combined assets must be $3,000 or less. There is also an income limit. The limit is $1,767 per month for an individual and $2.607 per month for couples.

SSI payments are also available to people older than 65—retirement age—who meet financial qualifications such as the required assets and savings but don’t have disabilities.

How does SSI work?

The SSI program offers monthly payments to cover basic needs such as food, shelter, and clothing. The amount you receive varies, as most states and the District of Columbia may add money to your federal SSI payment— only Arizona, Mississippi, North Dakota, and West Virginia are exceptions. Furthermore, in some cases, you may get a smaller amount from SSI because you already receive a pension from previous employment.

The monthly maximum federal amount for SSI is $841 for an individual and $1,261 for an individual with a spouse.

You can apply online for SSI or by phone at 1-800-772-1213. It takes three to five months to get approved for SSI.

What is SSDI?

A second federal program to consider if you have a disability is the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program. It differs from SSI in that there is no maximum net-worth threshold for SSDI; instead, you must have worked and paid Social Security taxes to be eligible and receive monthly payments from the program.

If approved, this federal program may pay monthly benefits to you and your family members, such as a spouse, children, and an adult child who is disabled before they reach the age of 22.

Each family member may be eligible for a monthly benefit of up to 50% of your disability benefit amount. The total amount your family may receive is about 150% to 180% of your SSDI benefit.

Who qualifies for SSDI?

According to the Social Security Administration, to receive SSDI benefits, you must have a disability, have worked long enough and recently enough, and have paid social security taxes on your earnings to qualify.

To apply for SSDI benefits based on your disability, your family members must provide their Social Security numbers and birth certificates. If your spouse is applying for SSDI, proof of marriage may be required.

What are Social Security Work Credits?

You must have earned a certain number of “work credits” to qualify for SSDI. A social security work credit is based on your total yearly wages or self-employment, and you can earn up to four work credits in a year. In 2022, you gain one work credit for each $1,510 in job wages or self-employment income. Once you’ve earned $6,040, you’ve reached the maximum of four work credits you can acquire in a year.

To qualify for SSDI, you’ll need 40 work credits (or 10 consecutive years of accrual), with 20 of those credits earned in the past 10 years and ending in the year that your disability began. Younger workers may qualify for SSDI with fewer work credits from Social Security than their older counterparts. For example, if you are under 24, you may qualify for SSDI if you have earned six work credits in the three-year period ending when your disability begins.

How does SSDI work?

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Ask yourself the following five questions, first.

There are five steps involved in determining whether you are eligible for SSDI.

1. How much do (or did) you earn?

According to the Social Security Administration, calculating how much you earn is the first step in determining whether you qualify for an SSDI benefit. If you are working in 2022 and your earnings average more than $1,350 a month, you earn too much to be eligible under SSDI

2. Does your disability qualify?

Finding out if your disability appears on the list of medical conditions put out by the Social Security Administration is the second step.

3. How severe is the disability?

The severity of your disability is another crucial aspect in determining disability benefits with the SSDI. If your disability limits your ability to do work-related activities for at least 12 months, you are a step closer to qualifying for SSDI.

4. Has the disability stopped you from working?

Step four considers your previous work. Does your disability stop you from working a previous job? If the answer is yes, you are a step closer to having a qualifying disability for SSDI. On your SSDI application, you’ll be asked for the date that your medical condition began to affect your ability to work. You’ll also be asked the types of jobs, up to five, that you had in the 15 years before you became too ill or injured to work.

5. Is there another job you could perform instead?

Step five evaluates your capacity for other work. Is there other work you can do with your current disability? If the answer is no, you may qualify for SSDI. But if there is additional work you can do, your claim may be denied.

You can apply for SSDI by calling 1-800-772-1213, the same number used for SSI. You also can apply online for SSDI.

Does everyone get approved for SSI or SSDI?

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It may be worth applying, even if you think you only meet some of the requirements.

Keep in mind that not everyone will qualify for these federal disability benefits. “The process requires that your medical records show evidence of a healthcare provider’s diagnosis of physical or mental impairments,” Bradshaw says.

And you must meet the financial requirements as well. If you need additional help applying for SSI or SSDI, you can apply in person at a local Social Security office.

You may also apply and receive SSI monthly payments even if you already get SSDI payments. There’s no harm in applying for both federal disability programs if you are eligible.

Moreover, SSI and SSDI participants may qualify for federal healthcare benefits. “Often SSI recipients also qualify for Medicaid, and SSDI recipients will qualify for Medicare after a defined waiting period typically 29 months from eligibility,” Bradshaw says.

So be sure to apply for these healthcare programs once approved for SSI and SSDI.

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