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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 (normally, the amounts go up every January 1). These amounts are supplemented in most states (see below).

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 quite 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. Although the criteria are far too detailed to be described here, generally speaking 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.” http://www.ssa.gov/online/ssa-16.html

About 8.3 million persons were receiving SSI payments as of December 2012. Three-quarters of these recipients were below age 65, and one-quarter were aged 65 or older. Many older persons who are not eligible for Social Security retirement benefits because they have not accumulated enough work credits may nevertheless be eligible for SSI, and even 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. (For more information on state supplements, visit the SSA Web site.) 

The idea of the SSI program is to provide a floor income level. If you are receiving income from another source, 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 meager, in most states 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.