Policy Basics: Introduction to Supplemental Security Income
January 13, 2011
What Is the Supplemental Security Income Program?
The federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides monthly cash assistance to people who are disabled, blind, or elderly and have little income and few assets. SSI is distinct from the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) programs commonly known as Social Security, though many SSI recipients have worked enough that they also collect Social Security and the Social Security Administration runs both programs.
In December 2009, 7.7 million people collected SSI benefits. For three-fifths of recipients, SSI represents their only source of income.
Who Qualifies for SSI, and What Benefits Do They Receive?
To qualify for SSI, applicants must be aged or disabled and have little or no income and few assets. SSI recipients are limited to $2,000 in assets for individuals and $3,000 in assets for couples, with certain exceptions. Children with disabilities may also qualify for SSI, since a child’s disability may impose additional costs on his or her caregiver.
In 2010 and 2011, the basic monthly SSI benefit is $674 for an individual and $1,011 for a couple. These amounts are reduced for recipients who have other sources of income or who live in a Medicaid facility or with someone else who provides support. Because of these reductions, the average SSI monthly benefit for individuals was only $499 in November 2010. Many states supplement the federal SSI benefit, though budget cuts are crimping those additional payments.
In most states, anyone who receives SSI benefits is automatically eligible for Medicaid. About half of SSI recipients also get food stamps, and about one-fifth receive housing assistance.
How Has SSI Changed Over Time?
Since SSI began in 1974, the number of SSI recipients has slightly more than doubled. Over that time, SSI has changed from a program that mainly supplemented Social Security income for elderly adults to a broader antipoverty program that aids the disabled of all ages. SSI is increasingly important for children and adults with disabilities.
The vast majority — 85 percent — of all SSI recipients in 2009 were eligible because of a disability, and 6 in 10 disabled recipients had a mental disability. The share of SSI recipients who are disabled (rather than elderly) has grown steadily over time; however, the number of people who receive SSI is not generally growing faster than population.
How Is SSI Funded?
As an entitlement program, SSI is available to anyone who meets its eligibility requirements. Unlike Social Security (which is financed by dedicated payroll taxes), SSI is funded from general revenues. At a cost of $48 billion in fiscal year 2009, SSI constitutes a small portion of the federal budget — 1.4 percent of total spending that year. A small share (7 percent in 2009) of SSI spending pays for administrative costs.
SSI expenditures were 0.32 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) in 2009 and are expected to decline to 0.25 percent of GDP by 2033.
How Effective Is SSI?
SSI benefits are about three-fourths of the poverty line for a single person and slightly over 80 percent of poverty for a couple. Thus, while SSI alone is not enough to lift someone out of poverty, it is instrumental in reducing the number of people in extreme poverty, with incomes below half the poverty line.
SSI also is effective in reducing the aggregate poverty gap (the amount of money needed to lift families out of poverty) among SSI recipients. In 2002, SSI reduced the aggregate poverty gap by two-thirds.
Still, half of SSI recipients live below the poverty line even after taking their benefits into account, and many more elderly or disabled persons in need of assistance do not get benefits. Reforming SSI could increase program participation and make benefit levels more adequate. Possible reforms include increasing the basic benefit, updating the asset and income limits, and easing restrictions on eligibility for legal immigrants.
For more information, see "Introduction to the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Program."