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Policy Basics: Supplemental Security Income

Created in 1972, the federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides monthly cash assistance to people who are disabled or elderly and have little income and few assets. Like the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program, commonly known as Social Security, SSI is administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA). In June 2018, 8.2 million people collected SSI benefits.

UPDATED
August 24, 2018

Who Qualifies for SSI and What Benefits Do They Receive?

The vast majority of SSI recipients — 86 percent — are eligible due to a severe disability (including blindness). In June 2018, 1.2 million recipients were children. Since SSI is available only to those who are disabled (or elderly) and have very low incomes and assets, more disabled children become eligible for SSI when poverty rates rise.

SSI recipients are limited to $2,000 in assets for individuals and $3,000 in assets for couples, with certain exceptions. Because recipients typically have no other source of income, more than half receive the basic monthly SSI benefit, which in 2018 is $750 for an individual and $1,125 for a couple.

SSA reduces these benefit amounts for recipients who have other sources of income or live in a Medicaid facility or with someone who provides support. For example, while SSA exempts (or “disregards”) the first $20 per month of unearned income when determining a person’s SSI eligibility and benefit levels, any income above that amount from sources such as Social Security benefits, pensions, interest, and child support is subtracted from SSI benefits. Similarly, SSA disregards the first $65 per month of earnings, but each dollar of earnings above that level typically reduces SSI benefits by 50 cents. Such reductions dropped the average SSI monthly benefit to $553 in June 2018.

Many states supplement the federal SSI benefit, though some have cut those additional payments over the years. In most states, SSI recipients are automatically eligible for Medicaid. Over 60 percent of SSI recipients also get SNAP (food stamps) and about one-quarter receive housing assistance.

How Has SSI Changed Over Time?

Since SSI began in 1974, the share of the elderly receiving benefits has fallen steadily, mostly because fewer seniors qualify under SSI’s increasingly stringent income limits. The share of children and adults with disabilities receiving SSI grew, partly due to policy changes in 1984 that expanded eligibility based on mental impairments and a 1990 Supreme Court ruling that expanded the SSI disability criteria for children. Following those changes, the 1996 welfare law restricted eligibility for children and immigrants.

The share of Americans receiving SSI has remained steady at around 2.5 percent over the past decade and is projected to fall slightly over the long term. The share of people from each age group receiving SSI is expected to stay steady or (in the case of the elderly) to continue declining.

How Is SSI Funded?

Unlike Social Security, which is financed by dedicated payroll taxes, SSI is funded from general revenues. SSI expenditures, at $59 billion in fiscal year 2017, were 0.31 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) that year. More than $9 of every $10 pay for benefits; the rest covers administrative costs.

How Effective Is SSI?

Basic SSI benefits are about three-fourths of the poverty line for a single person. Thus, while SSI alone is not enough to lift someone living independently out of poverty, it reduces the number of people in extreme poverty and greatly lessens the burden on other family members. In 2013, the poverty rate among recipients would have been 63 percent without SSI payments; the actual rate, including SSI, was 42 percent, an SSA study found.

Still, that means over two-fifths of SSI recipients live below the poverty line even after taking their benefits into account. Many other needy elderly or disabled persons, including legal immigrants affected by the 1996 eligibility restrictions, don’t get benefits.

Ways to Improve SSI

Congress can strengthen SSI by updating the asset limits and income disregards and indexing them to inflation. The asset limits have been frozen since 1989 and the income disregards have remained the same since SSI’s launch in 1974; their low levels prevent many needy elderly and disabled people from qualifying for the program.

Congress can also improve SSI by increasing the basic SSI benefit, partially exempting retirement savings from the asset limits, and easing eligibility restrictions for legal immigrants.