SSI (Supplemental Security Income) is a program that pays monthly cash benefits to blind or disabled children and adults who are blind, disabled, or over 65. SSI is different from SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance), which is a program that pays benefits to disabled adults who have paid FICA taxes over the course of their working history.
To qualify for SSI, you must have limited income and few assets. Social Security requires SSI recipients to have less than $2,000 in assets, for a single person, and $3,000 for a couple (not counting money in an ABLE account).
The income limit is more complicated. The way Social Security counts income is different than the way we usually think of income. Countable income includes wages or any other kind of money you earn from working, plus money you get from other sources like unemployment, Social Security retirement, or gifts from friends, but also, free food or shelter. In addition, to encourage SSI recipients to work, Social Security excludes part of your income from its calculations.
In general, the income limit for SSI is the federal benefit rate (FBR), which is $794 per month for an individual and $1,191 per month for a couple in 2021. Remember, though, that not all income is countable, and so you can earn more than $794 per month and still qualify for SSI (more on this below).
In some circumstances, Social Security will consider the income of people living with the SSI recipient when calculating an SSI applicant's countable income. If you live with a spouse who does not receive SSI, part of your spouse's income will be included in your countable income (but you use the couple's federal benefit rate of $1,191 as your income limit rather than the individual income limit). And when a disabled child applies for SSI, Social Security will count some of the parents' income as the child's own (subtracting an allowance for the other children and parents in the family).
Social Security does not count all income toward the SSI limit. Examples of non-countable income are the first $20 of most kinds of income you receive in a month, part of your wages (see "Earned Income Exclusion," below), SNAP (food stamps), tax refunds, public benefits based on need, and loans that you have to repay. In addition, Social Security allows you to deduct any impairment-related work expenses (such as the cost of special transportation) from your income.
Social Security has several earned income exclusions that reduce countable income and make it easier to qualify for SSI if you are working. Social Security excludes the first $65 in earnings and one-half of all earnings over $65 in a month.
The earned income exclusions mean that in 2021 a person can earn about $1,650/month and still qualify for SSI (though the monthly payment is reduced when you have countable income).
This is how this works. Social Security will disregard the first $20 of income and the first $65 of earned income. If you make $1,600 per month, this would leave $1,515. Then, Social Security would disregard half of the rest of the earnings, leaving $757.50, which is still under the federal SSI rate of $794. However, the $757.50 would be subtracted from the SSI rate, leaving you with a monthly benefit of just $36.50.
A couple can generally have about $2,400 in earned monthly income before their SSI check will disappear. And disabled students under 22 can have about $7,600 of their annual incomes deemed not countable.
To calculate your countable income, Social Security subtracts amounts that it does not count from your gross (total) income. Then, Social Security subtracts your countable income from the Social Security federal benefit rate ($794) to come up with the amount of your monthly SSI benefit. For more information, see our article on how much SSI pays.
To learn more about what counts as income, see Nolo's article on countable income for Social Security.
Another factor that affects how much income you can have and still qualify for SSI is the state you live in. Most states give supplemental payments to SSI recipients. Only Arizona, Arkansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, and West Virginia do not have a state supplement. State supplements range from $10 to about $700.
The SSI income limit increases with the amount of the state supplement, so that individuals who are eligible for a higher monthly SSI amount because of a state supplement are also able to have more countable income and still qualify for SSI.
It is hard to figure out the exact SSI income limit that applies to you because it's hard to be sure of the amount of the state supplement that you qualify for. Many states vary the amount of their supplements based on living situations. For example, nursing home residents may qualify for higher supplements that others in some states.
Rather than trying to figure out how much of your income will be countable or what the SSI income limit is that applies to you, the best thing to do is to ask Social Security or apply for SSI. You can either contact the Social Security field office nearest you or call Social Security at 800-772-1213.
Updated January 13, 2021