What’s the Difference? Unraveling SSI and SSDI

By Sara Sapia, Elder & Disability Law Clinic Student, Spring 2018

Clients often come to our clinic with the goal of applying for public assistance benefits through Social Security, primarily based on concerns of age, disability, or both. Social Security offers two types of benefits – SSI and SSDI. Many of our clients have applied for these benefits before but have been denied for one reason or another. It is common for clients to think they have applied for one program but have in fact applied for the other. The similar acronyms alone are enough to understand why people commonly confuse the two programs. However, SSI and SSDI have distinct purposes and are designed to provide benefits to different groups of people.

SSI stands for Supplemental Security Income and is meant to benefit low-income individuals who are aged, blind, or disabled. The benefit received through SSI is capped at $735 per month for an individual ($1,103 for a couple)[1] and is designed to allow an individual “to meet basic needs for food, clothing, and shelter.”[2] Applicants must show that they fall below the capped income and resource guidelines and also provide supporting medical documentation if they are filing as disabled. Additionally, if an individual is granted SSI, he immediately becomes eligible to receive Medicaid health insurance benefits in many states.  In Virginia, however, the individual must apply and meet separate qualifications for Medicaid benefits.

SSDI stands for Social Security Disability Insurance and is designed to assist individuals who become disabled during their employment years and are thereby no longer able to work. The monetary benefit received is based on how much an individual has paid into Social Security during her working years. This program, therefore, essentially acts as a way for individuals to access their Social Security contributions before they reach retirement age. Applicants must show that they are completely and totally disabled and unable to perform any work which is available to someone with their same physical and mental abilities.[3]

According to the most recent available data, first-time SSDI applications are denied at an alarming rate, approximately 72 percent.[4] For this reason alone, it is important to know and understand the unique requirements for each program in order to not waste time completing an application that does not fit a person’s needs or characteristics, particularly under SSDI. If a client is low-income and has only minimal work history, it makes more sense to file an SSI application. However, if a client has worked for a number of years and became disabled while working, it is best to start by applying for SSDI because it could yield a higher benefit amount for the client each month. It is also important to keep in mind that waiting times for Social Security applications can be extremely long, ranging from as little as three months to as long as one year, so clients should not immediately expect a decision on their application after it is submitted.

SSI and SSDI are therefore distinct programs with their own unique characteristics and advantages that should be well explained to clients prior to application. Additionally, before applying for benefits, individuals should seek assistance from a professional who understands the Social Security system and can guide them through the process.

[1] 2018 rates.