What is the Difference Between SSI and Disability? Your Questions Answered

The information in this article is current as of November 27, 2021.

If you are one of the 61 million Americans living with a disability, you may be researching your benefits options and have questions about the difference between SSI and disability.

SSI and disability both offer great benefits for those who qualify. But, unfortunately, many people don’t know the difference between SSI and disability, much less how to qualify for each one.

What is the difference between SSI and disability, and what do you need to know about these programs? Keep reading to discover the answers!

What Are SSI Benefits?

Our guide is going to walk you through the key differences and similarities between SSI and disability. First, though, we need to define what these things are.

SSI stands for Social Security Income. These are benefits available to those who qualify. Typically, this is limited to adults with meager income and children who are blind, disabled, or have meager income.

Because the primary qualifier for these benefits is low income, it may be easier for you to get SSI than to get a disability.

What Are Disability Benefits?

Generally speaking, “disability” refers to Social Security Disability Insurance (better known as SSDI). Unlike SSI, which you may qualify for based on income, SSDI is reserved for those who become disabled throughout their careers.

“Social Security” is in the title because that’s precisely what this is. As a result, those who become disabled and qualify for SSDI can effectively access their Social Security benefits earlier (in some cases, far earlier) than they would otherwise be able to.

However, qualifying for SSDI means providing a paper trail concerning your disability. And before you can gather the correct paperwork, it’s essential to understand precisely how the government defines “disability.”

How Is “Disability” Defined?

As you might expect, the exact definition of “disabled” can vary significantly from person to person. Because of this, the Social Security Administration has their definition that uniformly apply to all applicants.

First of all, Social Security will only payout for what they define as “total disability.” This means you have a disability that keeps you from performing the work you did before and keeps you from switching to another line of work. Finally, the disability must be one that doctors expect to last for at least one year and to last for the rest of your life.

This may seem a bit harsh, but the SSA only wants to award SSDI to those who have long-term and severe disabilities. However, suppose your disability is projected to be short-term. In that case, they instead expect you to look into other solutions that may include everything from workers’ compensation and insurance coverage to personal savings.

Now that you know a bit more about how both SSI and SSDI work, let’s take a closer look at the differences between them.

What Is the Difference Between SSI and Disability?

So, what is the difference between SSI and disability? In reality, there is no single difference. Instead, there are multiple critical differences between these programs.

We have already covered some of the critical differences. For example, qualifying for SSI is usually a matter of simply proving your age and your financial situation. But qualifying for SSDI means proving that you have a disability that meets the strict requirements of the SSA.

One surprising difference between the programs has to do with Medicaid. If you qualify for SSI benefits, then you should apply for Medicaid right away. But if you qualify for SSDI benefits, you will automatically qualify for Medicaid benefits after two years.

Finally, there is a difference in how soon benefits begin paying out for qualified applicants. Those who qualify for SSI may receive benefits in the first entire month after they qualify. But those who qualify for SSDI must wait until the sixth entire month of their disability to begin receiving benefits, and waiting for your application to be reviewed may be frustrating.

With this information in mind, we will take a closer look at the eligibility requirements for each set of benefits.

Who Is Eligible for SSI?

There are multiple ways that someone may become eligible for SSI. For most people, this eligibility is based on age. Once you are 65 years old or blind, you can access these benefits so long as you can demonstrate that you have little income or other resources.

Regardless of age, you may be able to qualify for SSI if you have both a disability and low income. This is why it is possible to qualify for both SSI and SSDI benefits (more on this later).

As you can tell, the primary qualifying factor when it comes to SSI benefits is your income. That remains constant whether you are 65 or older, blind, or otherwise disabled.

Who Is Eligible for Disability?

Unsurprisingly, the primary qualifying factor for SSDI has a persistent disability. As we noted before, this disability should be one projected to last at least a year and one that will prevent you from completing your old job or any alternative task.

Aside from that, the essential thing regarding SSDI benefits is having enough work credits. Someone seeking SSDI benefits before they are 24 must have at least six credits to qualify for SSDI. 

Meanwhile, those aged 24 to 31 must have at least 12 work credits to qualify. And those who are 31 or older must have earned at least 20 work credits in the last ten years before they qualify for disability.

So, how does the SSA define “work credits?” While the exact numbers may change each year, the SSA in 2021 awards one work credit for each $1,470 in earnings each year. 

However, you can only earn up to four credits per year. Therefore, the primary function of this work credit system is to ensure that qualifying applicants have contributed some taxable income to the system before they begin receiving benefits.

Is It Possible to Get Both SSI and Disability Benefits?

One general question is whether a person may qualify for both SSI and SSDI benefits at once. The short answer is “yes.” The long answer is “yes, but you’re going to need to do some math.”

That is because SSI benefits are contingent on your income and other resources. Therefore, in qualifying for SSI, you must be able to prove that you have limited income and very few resources (such as real estate, vehicles, and other personal property).

Someone who qualifies for SSDI may potentially qualify for SSI benefits. However, you must be able to still meet the “low income” threshold for SSI even after receiving SSI benefits.

So long as you are still considered low income, you can apply, qualify, and receive both sets of benefits.

Is One Set of Benefits Better Than the Other?

Now you know that it is possible to qualify for both SSI and SSDI benefits. However, many people can potentially only qualify for one set of benefits. So, assuming that you could apply to each one, it’s worth asking: which set of benefits is better?

All things being equal, you may be better off applying for SSDI benefits rather than SSI benefits. That’s because, according to research from the Disability Benefits Center, the average SSDI payment in 2020 was $1237 per month, and the maximum SSI payout for 2020 was $783 per month.

On top of that, it is often easier to qualify for SSDI benefits than SSI benefits. This is because many who are disabled make too much money to qualify for SSI. But regular medical visits make it relatively easy for you to prove the state of your disability to the SSA.

However, the ultimate decision as to which program to pursue is up to you.

How Can I Apply for Benefits?

By now, you may be ready to put in an application for benefits. But do you know how you can get started?

If you are an adult applying for yourself, the easiest way to apply for SSI benefits is to use the online application. Alternatively, you can pick up the phone and call 1-800-772-1213. Previously, you could also visit your local Social Security offices, though these have been closed for in-person visitation through much of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Applying for SSDI benefits is similarly straightforward. Again, there is an easy online application that anyone can fill out regardless of age. And if you’d prefer to speak to a natural person, you can still call 1-800-772-1213 to get started.

What Comes Next?

Now you have an answer to the question, “what is the difference between SSI and disability?” But do you know how you can save money when you’re on a limited income?

Save Money on Your Wireless Phone Service

If you qualify for federal benefits such as SSDI, you also qualify for Lifeline service. Lifeline is a federal benefit program that allows low-income consumers to receive free or heavily discounted communication services. Click here to find out more and apply for this valuable benefit.

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