American Samoa is an American territory located in the South Pacific Ocean. American Samoans hold US passports, but they are not American citizens. Instead, they are American nationals. The main difference is that they cannot vote, run for office, or hold jobs in certain fields. It also means that they cannot collect Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits.
Like American Samoans, people in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands are considered American nationals rather than US citizens. For this reason, none are eligible for SSI benefits, no matter the circumstances. People in the Northern Mariana Islands can get SSI benefits, despite not being American citizens. However, this is due to their unique political status.
There are some benefits, however, that American Samoans and other American nationals can get. Thankfully, all American nationals who pay into the system can still qualify for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) payments. So, if you apply for disability benefits in American Samoa, you can only qualify for SSDI payments — not SSI. Keep reading to learn about other benefits available to those living in U.S. territories below.
What Other Federal Benefits Can You Potentially Get in American Samoa?
While you can’t get SSI in American Samoa, people living on the island still have access to other federal benefits. Here are some that both American Samoans and US citizens alike can enjoy:
- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)
- Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
- Social Security Retirement, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (RSDI) benefits
- Medicare coverage
- VA pension and disability compensation for military vets who qualify and their families
- Higher education benefits, such as PELL grants and direct loans to cover college expenses
Why You Can’t Get SSI Benefits in American Samoa
A 2022 Supreme Court ruling reinforced that people living in American territories do not have all the same rights as US citizens do. While this case specifically focused on Puerto Rico, the rationale behind the ruling also applies to residents of American Samoa. Essentially, it comes down to the fact that American nationals don’t pay the same exact taxes that US citizens do. As a result, they are not entitled to receive all the same benefits granted to American citizens.
With regards to SSI benefits, all money for those payments come out of the general tax fund of the US federal government. And while American nationals have never had access to SSI, Justices Sotomayor and Gorsuch both stated that it’s time to rethink these rules. In their 2022 dissent, Justices Gorsuch and Sotomayor cited these outdated, “odious and wrong” beliefs as good reasons to reconsider their usefulness.
Supreme Court Justices aren’t the only public officials who want to give American nationals the right to SSI. President Biden also wanted to extend SSI to individuals in US territories via his Build Back Better plan. However, Congress would not pass the bill unless the Biden Administration agreed to remove that specific provision.
This is a complicated issue with no clear path forward everyone can agree on. In fact, the government of American Samoa opposes any effort to extend American citizenship to its people. When pressed about the issue, local officials cited concerns about infringement of local laws and customs.
SSDI Requirements for People Living in US Territories
While you cannot qualify for SSI benefits in American Samoa, you can still qualify for SSDI. To do so, you must meet all the following:
- Have at least 20 Social Security work credits when you apply. This means you’ve worked about 5 in the last 10 years while paying Social Security payroll taxes.
- Be a legal permanent resident with a valid Social Security Number (SSN). You don’t have to be a US citizen; Green Card and H1B visa holders may also qualify for SSDI.
- Not currently getting other Social Security benefits on your own work record. This includes things like early retirement or regular Social Security.
- Incapable of working for at least 12 months in a row, specifically for health reasons. If your condition, illness or injury will get better in less than one year, then you won’t qualify for SSDI payments.
Finally, the Social Security Administration (SSA) will check to make sure you aren’t working now and earning more than $1,470 each month. If you are, then your personal income will be too high to award you SSDI payments in American Samoa.
Is There Any Recourse for American Samoans Denied SSI Disability Benefits?
Unfortunately, no. There is no current way to obtain SSI benefits as an American national living in American Samoa. Keeping up with Supreme Court decisions and ongoing legislative changes can help you understand what benefits are available to you.
Since American Samoans can receive other federal benefits, however, all is not lost. Working with an attorney can lead to quicker, better results in such cases. If you’re filing for SSDI payments, for example, an attorney can review your paperwork for free.
Want to speak with a Social Security attorney free of charge about your claim? Click the button below now to start your free online benefits quiz and see if you may qualify:
Lisa Allen is a writer and editor who lives in suburban Kansas City. She holds MFAs in Creative Nonfiction and Poetry, both from the Solstice Low-Residency Program in Creative Writing at Pine Manor College. Prior to becoming a writer, Lisa worked as a paralegal, where she specialized in real estate in and around Chicago.