The Difference Between Social Security Disability and Supplemental Security Income

Important: We updated this article in May 2022 with current SSA policy data and statistics. For Americans with disabilities, paying bills can be difficult. Social Security disability (SSD) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) programs provide the largest amount of income aid to those with disabilities. However, these programs do not provide benefits to those with short-term disabilities.

Social Security Disability Insurance Is An Entitlement Program

At its core, SSDI is a federal disability insurance program. SSDI specifically covers people paying federal Social Security taxes for 5 out of the last 10 working years. It’s only offered to adults aged 18-65, but spouses and children are eligible to receive partial dependent benefits, too. Once an SSDI beneficiary turns 66 or 67, benefits automatically convert into regular Social Security retirement. It’s not possible to qualify for SSDI after reaching your full retirement age (FRA).

Congress founded SSDI in 1960 as an amendment to Social Security’s rules. SSDI allows disabled persons to collect benefits who aren’t yet eligible for regular Social Security.

To get benefits, you have to prove that your disability is so debilitating that you cannot participate in any kind of substantial gainful activity. That means the SSA will automatically deny benefits to anyone still working when they apply.

How Social Security Disability Insurance Benefits Work

Americans who pay Social Security (also called FICA) taxes can apply for these benefits. If approved, the SSA pays Social Security Disability Insurance benefits every month. (These are also commonly called SSD or SSDI benefits.) Family members may also potentially receive SSD benefits.

To qualify for SSDI payments, the Social Security Administration must approve your claim. The first step is proving that you’re too disabled to work for at least 12 months in a row. The SSA’s definition of “disabled” states you must not be able to perform work that could be done before your diagnosis, adjust to other work due to medical conditions or the disability is expected to last for more than one year or result in death. Short-term disabilities are largely not counted as part of this definition. In fact, SSA assumes that working families have other sources of income to support themselves such as workers’ compensation, health insurance, savings or investments. If you haven’t worked 5 in the last 10 years full-time, then your insurance policy lapses and you won’t qualify for SSDI benefits.

Getting Health Insurance Benefits After SSD Approval

After receiving Social Security disability payments for two years, you automatically get Medicare health coverage. Medicare Part A costs nothing and covers inpatient and follow-up care. However, you’ll have monthly premiums deducted from your SSD benefits for Medicare Part B coverage. Medicare Part B covers your doctor’s visits, medical services, and outpatient hospital care costs. Recipients can bolster this coverage with smaller, more specific packages called “Medigaps.”

When to Expect Your First SSD Payment

Once the SSA approves your disability claim, you’ll start receiving payments during the sixth month. So if your disability starts on May 1 and you apply for SSDI on July 1, the soonest you’ll get paid benefits is November 30. Your monthly payment amount depends on your lifetime average earnings and how much you’ve paid in FICA taxes.

The average monthly payment for SSDI benefits is $1,358, though this varies from person to person. It takes a while to receive your first SSDI payment, thanks to a mandatory 5-month waiting period. Having a lawyer help you apply is the best way to expedite your claim and get benefits paid faster.

Those applying for Social Security disability must meet certain eligibility requirements. Applicants must submit convincing medical evidence that proves they cannot work for at least one year. The SSA may automatically approve applicants with impairments on the Compassionate Allowances List (CAL list). This CAL list features many terminal illnesses and rare, but debilitating ailments, like pancreatic cancer or Lou Gehrig’s disease. However, not all disabilities are so easy to prove. If yours isn’t on this list, it can be much harder to get your benefits application approved.

How Supplemental Security Income Works

While SSDI filled a major gap in the SSA’s disability program, there was little in place to offer benefits based solely on need. In 1974, SSI replaced a haphazard assortment of state laws to reliably provide for disabled individuals with little or no work history.

SSI is contingent on your household income. Unlike SSDI, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) helps the lowest-income blind, disabled or aged claimants. Supplemental Security Income helps pay for basic necessities, like food, clothing and shelter. Social Security tax contributions don’t pay for the SSI program’s benefits. Instead, SSI uses money from the general tax revenues to pay for benefits.

How to Qualify for Supplemental Security Income

Supplemental Security Income applicants must reside in the U.S. to qualify for benefits. Eligible claimants must be at least 65 years old, blind or disabled. You must earn no more than $1,350/month and own less than $2,000 in assets to qualify for Supplemental Security Income payments. Payment is based on financial need. When applying for Supplemental Security Income benefits, you’ll have to meet the same medical requirements as SSDI.

Other Benefits You’ll Get With SSI Approval

SSI beneficiaries also usually qualify for food stamps and receive access to Medicaid. Medicaid is a comprehensive healthcare program that covers a great deal more than Medicare. Depending on which state you live in, you might receive automatic Medicaid enrollment once approved for Supplemental Security Income. Check the letter you receive from the SSA to confirm how you’ll receive healthcare coverage going forward upon approval.

How the Supplemental Security Income Program Can Help You Gain Financial Independence

Some people who qualify for Supplemental Security Income want to find a way to support themselves financially. Once SSI helps them get back on their feet financially, some may wish to return to the workforce. Supplemental Security Income offers program incentives to help Americans find employment while receiving benefits. This includes continual Medicaid acceptance, even after Supplemental Security Income payments end. You can keep getting Supplemental Security Income after starting a new job, in some cases. In fact, the SSA won’t count every bit of income if you follow program rules. Disabled and blind beneficiaries may also receive payments for traveling to and from work, out-of-pocket costs for work-related expenses and more. For example, special SSI-friendly savings plans let Supplemental Security Income recipients put aside some money each month.

Connecting to a legal representative may be beneficial when applying for either SSDI or SSI. A Social Security attorney can help you with collecting proper medical documentation, deal with the SSA on your behalf, and if necessary appeal a denied claim. In fact, having a lawyer file your claim makes you nearly 3x more likely to win benefits within 6 months! Since these attorneys work on contingency, you’ll pay $0 if the SSA doesn’t award you benefits. But if you do win benefits, then you’ll only pay a small, one-time fee.

Ready to see if you may qualify? Click the button below to start your free benefits evaluation online now!

Get Your Free Benefits Evaluation

Lori Polemenakos is Director of Consumer Content and SEO strategist for LeadingResponse, a legal marketing company. An award-winning journalist, writer and editor based in Dallas, Texas, she's produced articles for major brands such as, Yahoo!, MSN, AOL, Xfinity,, and edited several published books. Since 2016, she's published hundreds of articles about Social Security disability, workers' compensation, veterans' benefits, personal injury, mass tort, auto accident claims, bankruptcy, employment law and other related legal issues.