What Does Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) Mean for Social Security?

Substantial gainful activity is the level of work that a person without a disability can do.

By , J.D. University of Baltimore School of Law
Updated by Diana Chaikin, Attorney Seattle University School of Law
Updated 3/19/2024

One of the basic requirements for obtaining Social Security disability benefits is that you're not engaging in what the agency calls "SGA". SGA stands for substantial gainful activity, which means work performed at or above a certain income level.

Because Social Security defines disability as being unable to work full-time due to a severe medical condition, you'll need to show that you have at least a 12-month period where you aren't earning above SGA. Otherwise, your application will be denied.

What is Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA)?

For most disability applicants, the Social Security Administration (SSA) definition of substantial gainful activity means earning above a specific dollar amount. In 2024, this amount is $1,550 or more a month, or $2,590 if you're blind. The SSA adjusts these amounts each year to account for increases in the cost of living.

The maximum substantial gainful activity amounts themselves are pretty straightforward. If you're making more than the monthly SGA level, the SSA can't award you disability benefits. It doesn't matter if you made the entire SGA amount in one week and were totally bedridden for the rest of the month—the agency isn't allowed to find you disabled.

But SGA can be more than just a number. For instance, volunteer work, running a small business, and even criminal activity can all be considered SGA—even if you're not making any money.

SGA Defined: The Meaning of "Substantial" and "Gainful" Activity

To understand how Social Security decides what SGA is, it helps to break down the term "substantial gainful activity" into its component parts. The SSA considers work to be substantial when it involves significant physical or mental effort, and gainful when you get paid for your effort. Work can be substantial even if you can only do it part time, and gainful even if you don't actually get paid—as long as it's the type of work people usually get paid to do.

Here's an example of a case where the SSA might determine that a disability applicant is working at the level of substantial gainful activity, even when they're earning less than $1,550 in a month:

As shown in the above example, even if you don't get paid for your work, the SSA can still conclude that your volunteer activity counts as substantial gainful activity or shows that you have the ability to work at the SGA level.

When Does the SSA Calculate Volunteer Work as SGA?

Disability applicants who are involved volunteers are sometimes surprised to learn that their "work-like" activity can count as SGA. Examples of situations where the SSA might calculate volunteering as SGA include:

  • your wages would be above the SGA level if you were paid for what you do
  • you spend more than a few hours a week volunteering
  • the volunteer work has physical or mental requirements that suggest your ability to work at the SGA level, and
  • your volunteer work is for a business that is owned by a family member.

The more your volunteering resembles "work-like" activity, the more likely the SSA will find it to be SGA. For example, if you volunteer at a library stocking shelves for 20 hours a week, the SSA can take into consideration the physical demands of the job (carrying and shelving books) as well as the significant number of hours worked (half of a normal workweek) to determine that the volunteer position should be counted as SGA.

Substantial Gainful Activity Exceptions

Not every activity that a person could earn money doing will count as SGA for Social Security purposes. For instance, here are some examples of activities that the SSA usually doesn't consider to be substantial gainful activity:

  • things you do to take care of yourself, such as taking a shower or getting dressed
  • household chores, like doing the laundry or sweeping the floor
  • physical, occupational, or mental therapy
  • going to school, and
  • involvement in social activities, such as a book club or church group.

Keep in mind that even though the SSA doesn't consider these activities to be SGA for the purposes of determining your initial eligibility for disability benefits, the agency may still consider them as evidence of your functional limitations. Your limitations are an important component of your residual functional capacity, a set of restrictions that the SSA uses to determine whether you're disabled.

Income Exclusions Can Keep You Below SGA

If you are working, the SSA doesn't always count all of your income towards the SGA threshold. Such exceptions are known as "income exclusions," and are meant to encourage people who are trying to get back into the workforce.

SSI Recipients

If you apply for Supplemental Security Income—the needs-based disability program for people with a low income and few assets—and you're earning some money from work, Social Security will exclude a portion of your income when determining whether you're working at SGA. The SSA excludes the following:

  • the first $20 of unearned income
  • the first $65 of earned income
  • half of the remaining amount of earned income over $65
  • the first $30 each quarter of income received on an irregular basis, and
  • any money you save under a plan for achieving self-support (PASS) program.

Impairment-Related Work Expenses (IRWE)

Impairment-related work expenses (IRWEs) are costs you incur for special services or equipment related to your disability and necessary for you to work. If you have paid IRWEs, the SSA may deduct the cost from your earnings. This can help keep your income under the SGA level. Examples of items that the SSA may consider to be IRWEs include:

  • the cost of paying for specialized transportation to and from work
  • the cost of hiring someone to help you get ready for work in the morning
  • the cost of hiring a non-impaired person to do a part of your job you can't do because of your disability, and
  • the cost of training needed to learn how to use impairment-related specialized equipment needed for your work (for example, learning how to use a page turner or other typing device.)

To have IRWEs deducted from your earnings, you can't have already received reimbursement for them (for instance, from a vocational rehab program). You also can't get IRWE deductions for payments for services needed on behalf of other people, such as childcare. Costs for IRWEs must also be paid in cash and not by an exchange of services.

Subsidized Employment

Some employers pay disabled workers more than the market value of their labor in order to help them overcome employment barriers and gain experience in the workforce. The SSA refers to these situations as "subsidized" or "sheltered" employment. Any amount you're paid over the reasonable value for your services is considered a "subsidy."

The SSA won't include the amount of the subsidy when determining whether your work is SGA. The agency uses multiple factors to determine whether earnings include a subsidy and to calculate the approximate value of the subsidy. You can learn more about subsidized employment in Social Security Ruling 83-33, Determining Whether Work is Substantial Gainful Activity—Employees.

Self-Employment, Passive Income, and SGA

If you're self-employed—doing contract ("gig") work, odd jobs, freelancing, or running a small business—the SSA uses one of two special formulas to calculate whether your work is SGA. These formulas are called the "Countable Income Test" or the "Three Tests." Which test the SSA uses will depend on when your business was started and why the SSA is reviewing your work activity. You can learn more about how the SSA applies these tests in our article on disability benefits for the self-employed.

Passive income, such as money from investments or retirement funds, isn't considered SGA. But passive income can affect your eligibility for Supplemental Security Income if it's above the income limits for the program.

Can I Work Above SGA When I'm Already Receiving Disability Benefits?

Some people who qualify for disability benefits eventually have their health improve to the point that they're able to return to work. Social Security will periodically revisit approved disability cases (called "continuing disability reviews" and, for people who receive SSI, "redeterminations") to make sure that recipients still qualify for benefits.

If you're already getting Social Security disability and you begin working above the level of substantial gainful activity, the SSA can terminate your benefits. But generally the agency will give you some leeway before ending your benefits altogether. For more information, see our articles on how much you can work while on SSDI and how much you can work while receiving SSI benefits.

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