Comparing SSA And SSI

Many of the questions I receive reflect misunderstanding about Social Security benefits (retirement, survivors and disability) compared to Supplemental Security Income (SSI). While understandable since people apply for both through a Social Security office and the names are similar, they are separate and different programs. When President Nixon signed SSI into law in 1972, administration of the new program could have been assigned to any of several agencies. It was assigned to the Social Security Administration, perhaps because the agency already had so much beneficiary information and an established payment delivery system.

Stemming from the following question, today I will compare these two very different programs. Within Social Security offices, representatives usually have a degree of specialization within one or the other program. 

Q: Is Supplemental Security Income (SSI) supposed to be a supplement to Social Security benefits?

A: SSI is a Federal program to help people who have low income and few resources and are age 65 or older, or any age if blind or disabled. An individual or couple might receive both Social Security and Supplemental Security Income but, for those eligible, SSI supplements other income no matter the source. 

First, here are some ways that Social Security and SSI are similar: they both involve monthly payments, both use the same definition of disability for adults and the Social Security Administration administers both programs. 

Differences will take a bit longer. Here are some of the main ones. 

Basic eligibility: All Social Security retirement, survivors and disability benefits are based on a person’s work record. No work connection means no SSA benefits. It is possible that a person receiving benefits did not work under Social Security but they would be receiving based on the work record of someone. An easy example is children receiving benefits on the work record of a deceased parent. As long as the parent had enough work, the children could receive survivor benefits. If the parent was not insured, no benefit would be payable. Social Security benefits have a work connection. / Supplemental Security Income is based on need. It does not have a work requirement.

Funding: Social Security benefits are primarily funded by payroll taxes paid by employers, employees and the self-employed. Other funding is from income taxes that some people pay on a portion of their Social Security benefits and interest to the two SSA trust funds. / Supplemental Security Income is paid from general funds of the U.S. Treasury. There are no SSI trust funds. SSI costs are not paid from any Social Security funds.

Family benefits: Social Security retirement, survivors and disability all have the potential for family benefits including to children, spouses, ex-spouses and others depending on the situation. / Supplemental Security Income does not have family benefits of any kind. Only the eligible adult or child receives benefits. More than one family member can receive SSI, but only if each person is individually eligible. For example, both members of a couple might receive SSI if both are at least age 65, both are disabled, or one is at least age 65 and the other disabled. Income and resource requirements for the individual or couple would have to be met.  

Amount: Social Security benefit amounts are based on the workers career earnings. Age when starting benefits is also a factor depending on the specific SSA benefit involved. SSA retirement amounts are based on the workers best 35 years of work and age when starting benefits. Amounts do not routinely fluctuate although they can change, for example with a cost-of-living increase or if higher earnings replace those previously used. The maximum 2012 monthly SSA retirement amount for a worker retiring at full retirement age is $2,513. / Supplemental Security Income amounts are based on the person’s income, resources and where they live. Other income reduces SSI amounts. Amounts change depending on living arrangements. For example, moving from being alone in your own home to sharing a home with others can change a SSI amount. The maximum 2012 monthly SSI amount is $698 for an individual and $1,048 if both members of a couple are eligible.

Medicare: Social Security entitlement brings Medicare coverage at age 65 or after two years on SSA disability. / Supplemental Security Income does not bring any Medicare coverage. People receiving SSI might have Medicare coverage through another program such as Social Security but will not have Medicare just because they receive SSI. If eligible for SSI, a person can receive health care through Medicaid (medical assistance). Depending on the state, this might be automatic when receiving SSI or a specific state decision might be required. A state decision is required for Medicaid in both North Dakota and Minnesota.

Learn about Social Security retirement, survivors and disability and Supplemental Security Income at