What are Social Security Disability Benefits?

Wheel chair

Disability benefits infographic

The Social Security Administration (SSA) pays disability benefits through two programs: the Social Security disability insurance (SSDI) program and the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. Both programs supplement the income of individuals who are unable to work due to a medical disability. While medical eligibility for disability is determined in the same manner for both programs, the two programs are different and serve two distinct populations.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

Social Security Disability Insurance (DI) pays monthly benefits to workers who are no longer able to work due to a significant illness or impairment that is expected to last at least a year or is expected to result in death within a year. The program is funded through payroll taxes and works like an insurance plan. Recipients are considered "insured" because they have worked for a certain number of years and have made contributions to the Social Security trust fund through FICA Social Security taxes.

In order to qualify, you need to have worked for a minimum amount of time depending on your age when you become disabled. How much in disability benefits you receive depends your earnings record, therefore the higher your salary was, the higher your monthly benefits will be. SSDI is payable to disabled or blind workers, as well as their children, surviving spouses, and adults who have been disabled since childhood.

What You Should Know About SSDI Benefits

Here are some facts about the Social Security Disability Insurance Program:

  • Only those individuals who have earned enough credits based on their lifetime payroll tax contributions are eligible for SSDI benefits.
  • After receiving SSDI benefits for two years, disabled workers are automatically covered by Medicare.
  • There is a five-month waiting period for SSDI, allowing the SSA to validate that a worker's disability is long term. The worker is not entitled to benefits during this validation period.
  • If the claimant suffers a serious medical condition found on the SSA's Compassionate Allowance list, his or her claim may be processed more quickly.
  • A claimant has the right to appeal rejections. Appeals are typically heard by an administrative law judge.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI)

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a disability program for people with demonstrated financial need and a disability that prevents them from substantial gainful activity. The program provides monthly cash payments for people who are 65 or older, as well as blind or disabled people of any age, including children. SSI is funded by general fund taxes, such as personal income taxes and corporate taxes. The program is "means-tested", meaning your eligibility is strictly based on financial need.

To qualify for SSI, must have a qualifying disability and have little or no income and few resources. Your resources refer to the items you own. The value of your resources must be less than $2,000 if you’re single or less than $3,000 for married couples living together. This does not include the value of your home, if you live in it, or the value of your car. To get SSI, you must also apply for any other government benefits for which you may be eligible.

What You Should Know About SSI Benefits

Here are some facts about the Social Security Disability Insurance Program:

  • Many people who are eligible for SSI may also be entitled to Social Security benefits.
  • SSI beneficiaries can also get medical assistance (Medicaid) to pay for hospital stays, doctor bills, prescription drugs, and other health costs.
  • In most states, disabled workers automatically become eligible for Medicaid once they become SSI beneficiaries.
  • Monthly SSI payments are based on each individual applicant's income and resources, up to the maximum federal benefit rate.
  • Some states supplement SSI benefits with an additional monthly sum.
  • SSI beneficiaries may also be eligible for food assistance in every state except California.
  • In some States, an application for SSI also serves as an application for food assistance.

To get SSI, you must also:

  • Reside in the United States or the Northern Mariana Islands
  • Not be absent from the country for a full calendar month or more
  • Not be absent from the country for 30 consecutive days or more
  • Be a U.S. citizen, national citizen, or in one of the categories of qualified non–citizens.

Difference between SSDI and SSI Programs

While the medical eligibility for disability is determined in the same manner for both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Insurance (SSI), the two programs are different and serve two distinct populations. Here is a useful table created by the Social Security Administration showing the important differences between the two programs:

Source of payments


Disability trust fund.


General tax revenues.

Minimum Initial Qualification Requirements


Must meet SSA’s disability criteria. Must be “insured” due to contributions made to FICA based on your own earnings, or those of your spouse or your parents.


Must meet SSA’s disability criteria.

Must have limited income and resources.

Health Insurance Coverage Provided


Medicare. Consists of hospital insurance (Part A), supplementary medical insurance (Part B), and Medicare Advantage (Part C). Voluntary prescription drug benefits (Part D) are also included. Title XVIII of the Social Security Act authorizes Medicare


Medicaid. A jointly-funded, Federal- State health insurance program for persons with limited income and resources. It covers certain children, and some or all of the aged, blind, and disabled in a state who are eligible to receive federally-assisted income maintenance payments. Title XIX of the Social Security Act authorizes Medicaid. The law gives the states options regarding eligibility under Medicaid.

How do we figure your monthly payment amount?


We base your SSDI monthly payment amount on the worker’s lifetime average earnings covered by Social Security. We may reduce the amount if you receive Workers’ Compensation payments (including Black Lung payments) and/or public disability benefits, for example, certain state and civil service disability benefits. Other income or resources do not affect your payment amount. We usually adjust the monthly payment amount each year to account for cost-of- living changes.

We can also pay SSDI monthly benefits to dependents on your record, such as minor children.


To figure your payment amount, we start with the Federal Benefit Rate (FBR). In 2017, the FBR is $735 for a qualified person and $1,103 for a qualified couple. We subtract your countable income from the FBR and then add your state supplement, if any.

We do not count all of the income that you have. The income amount left after we make all the allowable deductions is “countable income”.

The sections on SSI employment supports explain some of the ways that we can exclude income.

We usually adjust the FBR each year to account for cost-of-living changes.

Is a State Supplemental Payment provided?


There is no state supplemental payment with the SSDI program.


Many states pay some persons who receive SSI an additional amount called a “state supplement”. The amounts and qualifications for these state supplements vary from state to state.

March 25, 2018