Anytime a letter bearing the seal of the Social Security Administration arrives, James feels afraid to open it.
An adult with cerebral palsy, he depends on Social Security disability benefits for the majority of his income. The benefits cover his rent and bills each month. But it’s not enough to live on, so he supplements it with side gigs like DoorDash, Instacart and other delivery apps.
It’s a difficult, frustrating balancing act, trying to work enough to maintain independence — but not so much that his benefits are cut off. It’s also suffused with fear. James talked to The Penny Hoarder about his experience but asked that his last name not be used out of concern of running afoul of the federal agency.
Millions of people are in James’ situation, fearful and confused by the labyrinth of rules governing their benefits. Disability benefits experts say discrimination, confusion regarding the rules and fear of benefits being cut at any time are all too common. And that’s despite the official Social Security position that people on disability should work to their fullest potential.
Here’s a primer on how the system works.
Is It Legal to Work While on Disability?
Yes, it’s even encouraged. The Social Security Administration helps disabled people find employment through work-incentive programs. How much a disabled worker is allowed to work and earn depends on several factors, and the two primary forms of assistance — Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) — work very differently.
SSI vs. SSDI — What’s the Difference?
To be eligible for either program, the Social Security Administration first determines if applicants are disabled using a specific definition.
According to the SSA, “disabled” means applicants:
- Are totally disabled (not partially disabled or disabled in the short-term).
- Can’t do work they previously could before the disability.
- Are unable to adjust to other work because of a medical condition.
- And the disability has lasted (or is expected to last) for at least one year or will result in death.
Beyond this definition, the programs vary greatly.
“Sometimes even beneficiaries don’t get the distinction between the two,” says Kathleen Romig, the Director of Social Security and Disability Policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “And the work rules are totally different.”
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
Supplemental Security Income is a financial-need-based program for elderly and disabled people. The federal government pays a stipend designed to cover basic necessities like food or housing for people who have little-to-no income.
As of January 2022, the maximum federal benefit for an individual is $841 for an individual and $1,261 for a couple per month. Several states add to that amount, according to the Social Security Administration. The total fluctuates annually.
SSI recipients may work and continue to receive their benefits until their total income exceeds $841 after a few deductions are taken into account.
“The first $65 in earnings are disregarded; after that benefits are reduced by $1 for every $2 earned,” says Romig. “The first $20 in unearned income is also disregarded. After that, SSI benefits are reduced dollar-for-dollar.”
In other words, benefits drop after the first $85 of income each month, no matter if the money is from a job or a friend.
Confused? So are many recipients.
SSI is typically for people who haven’t paid Social Security taxes from past W2 jobs. Once they work enough in the eyes of Social Security, they may be able to transfer to SSDI. But the vast majority of people on SSI don’t and can’t work.
Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)
Social Security Disability Insurance is for people who qualify as disabled and have paid enough Social Security taxes through past employment (typically five to 10 years worth of work credits) to qualify for additional benefits.
SSDI recipients are also allowed to work, and the rules are more lax because they have paid taxes into the system for much longer.
This program isn’t for low-income people, per se. But there are monthly limits on how much income someone can earn from a job: $1,350 a month or $2,260 for blind workers, as of 2022. Income and assets outside work earnings are unlimited.
“The benefits for the SSI folks are different because they didn’t pay into the system,” says Paula Vieillet, CEO of My Employment Options, a national employment network and advising company for people on Social Security assistance.
Social Security Work-Incentive Programs and Rules
Only SSI recipients are eligible to join PASS. Folks in this program set work goals, which could include starting a business, attending a college or learning a new skill. Once Social Security approves the plan, all costs related to achieving PASS goals can be deducted from their income, which allows SSI recipients to earn more money and keep their cash benefits.
Both SSI and SSDI recipients are eligible to join Ticket to Work.
The benefits for the SSI folks are different because they didn’t pay into the system.
They get an exemption from what’s called a Continuing Disability Review. This periodic medical check-in determines if a person meets the strict definition of “disabled.” If an SSI or SSDI recipient has been assigned a Ticket and is making good progress in the program, they don’t need to worry about the medical review or losing their current benefits.
SSDI recipients are also granted a trial work period in which they can work and earn as much as they want for nine months without jeopardizing their benefits.
“What the Ticket program does is it provides protection. It gives people the opportunity to try to go back to work,” Vieillet says. “And if they don’t make it, nothing ventured, nothing lost.”
Why Do Disabled People Still Lose Out?
For starters, federal policy hasn’t kept up with inflation or changes in the labor market, experts say. That’s especially so for Supplemental Security Income, the program James is on.
While the program mainly caters to the elderly and children with disabilities, James’ situation highlights several dated provisions. For example, the $85 income deduction was set when the act was signed into law in 1972. It hasn’t budged since. The $2,000 cap on liquid assets to qualify for SSI was set in 1989.
Another issue is the maximum monthly payout of $841. While this number does change annually, Romig notes it’s well below the poverty line.
For SSI and SSDI recipients who do work, their earned income can fluctuate month-to-month because it’s often hard to stick to a fixed work schedule due to the nature of their conditions. This makes it difficult for even the most earnest recipients to accurately report their income.
“You always want people to work to their fullest potential, of course. This is America,” Romig says. “That’s one of our foundational ideals.”
But the difficulty of navigating the programs coupled with the threat of losing benefits as a worker often clashes with that value.
Experts’ Advice: Don’t Go It Alone
Vieillet says the intricacies of each program are confusing, even to the experts. For the average person, it can be downright overwhelming.
When letters from Social Security start coming in the mail, “they scare the bejesus out of people,” says Teresa Nier, benefits and employment manager with My Employment Options.
You always want people to work to their fullest potential, of course. This is America. That’s one of our foundational ideals.
For disabled workers, joining a free work-incentive program and employment network can help. Ticket to Work offers benefits protection for recipients who want to test the employment waters. And organizations like My Employment Options have certified benefits counselors on staff to help applicants trudge through the paperwork and fine print — all while finding a job that fits their unique needs.
To avoid unexpected benefits cuts or having to return overpayments to the agency, “people need to keep Social Security updated with phone numbers and addresses,” Nier says. “Open those letters. Ask questions.”
Adam Hardy is a former staff writer for The Penny Hoarder. Robert Bruce, a senior writer with The Penny Hoarder, contributed. This story was originally published in July 2019. Income thresholds and other statistics have been updated for 2022.
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Social Security typically allows up to 45 hours of work per month if you're self-employed and on SSDI. That comes out to around 10 hours per week. The SSA will also see whether or not you're the only person working for your business.What happens if you work too much on disability? ›
When you earn more than the SSI limit, your payments will stop for those months. Your payments will start again for any month your income drops to less than the SSI limits. Be sure to tell us if your earnings drop, or if you stop working.What can cause you to lose your Social Security disability benefits? ›
- If, after completing a 9-month Trial Work Period (TWP), you work at a level we consider substantial. ...
- If we decide that your medical condition has improved and you no longer have a disability.
If you receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and/or Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), you may be able to work while keeping your benefits. But the benefit amount you receive may be reduced depending on how much money you earn from your job.How do I get the $16728 Social Security bonus? ›
To acquire the full amount, you need to maximize your working life and begin collecting your check until age 70. Another way to maximize your check is by asking for a raise every two or three years. Moving companies throughout your career is another way to prove your worth, and generate more money.How many hours can you work and still collect Social Security? ›
If you work between 15 and 45 hours a month, you won't be considered retired if it's in a job that requires a lot of skill, or you're managing a sizable business. Should you report changes in your earnings? We adjust the amount of your Social Security benefits in 2023 based on what you told us you would earn in 2023.What are the cons of being on disability? ›
- Disability insurance can be expensive. Coverage costs more the older you get or the more dangerous your job is. ...
- Policies can come with exclusions that don't cover pre-existing conditions. ...
- Waiting period. ...
- If you never experience a disability, you won't receive benefits.
You can receive SSDI benefits and work as long as your earnings are less than the “substantial gainful activity” (SGA) limit. Your application will likely be denied if your wages exceed this limit because the SSA believes your condition does not affect your ability to make a living.At what age does Social Security disability stop reviewing? ›
Social Security disability reviews stop when you reach full retirement age, which is currently 66 years old. At full retirement age, the SSA will assess your eligibility for continued disability benefits and review any changes to your medical condition or income.Can you live off disability? ›
Living and surviving on only SSDI is possible. However, making ends meet with disability benefits alone can be a challenge. It's important to know how to make the most of your benefits and consider other income or benefit sources. Budgeting and minimizing your monthly costs can make it easier to live on SSDI alone.
The SSDI program does not limit how much money you can have in the bank because there are no resource limits as you find with SSI.How do you know if Social Security is investigating you? ›
THE SSA INVESTIGATION USUALLY STARTS WITH THE INTERNET
SSA opens their investigation by looking you up on the internet. They will look up your name, phone number, and address. They usually already have this information, but they are checking it to make sure you are living at the address that you say you are living at.
The earning limits for Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefit recipients have increased for 2023. The current limit is $2,460 per month for blind individuals and $1,470 for non-blind individuals. Recipients must also be aware of the monthly income amounts that might trigger a trial work period (TWP).What happens to my Social Security if I go back to work? ›
Your benefits may increase when you work:
As long as you continue to work, even if you are receiving benefits, you will continue to pay Social Security taxes on your earnings. However, we will check your record every year to see whether the additional earnings you had will increase your monthly benefit.
According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), the maximum monthly Social Security Disability benefit is $3,345 per month in 2022 – up from $3,148 in 2021. This number is also the maximum monthly amount people who have reached full retirement age can receive for their monthly Social Security retirement payment.Will Social Security get a raise in 2023? ›
Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments will increase by 8.7% in 2023. This is the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) required by law. The increase will begin with benefits that Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2023.What changes are coming to Social Security in 2023? ›
Social Security recipients will get an 8.7% raise for 2023, compared with the 5.9% increase that beneficiaries received in 2022. Maximum earnings subject to the Social Security tax also went up, from $147,000 to $160,200.What is the secret Social Security bonus? ›
There is no specific “bonus” retirees can collect from the Social Security Administration. For example, you're not eligible to get a $5,000 bonus check on top of your regular benefits just because you worked in a specific career. Social Security doesn't randomly award money to people.When a husband dies does the wife get his Social Security? ›
These are examples of the benefits that survivors may receive: Surviving spouse, full retirement age or older — 100% of the deceased worker's benefit amount. Surviving spouse, age 60 — through full retirement age — 71½ to 99% of the deceased worker's basic amount.At what age do you get 100 of your Social Security benefits? ›
If you start receiving benefits at age 66 you get 100 percent of your monthly benefit. If you delay receiving retirement benefits until after your full retirement age, your monthly benefit continues to increase.
You'll be entitled to your full monthly Social Security benefit regardless of how many hours you work. Even if you decide to work full time or run a business, you'll get to keep your earnings and all of your Social Security payments.What is considered to be a permanent disability? ›
Permanent disability (PD) is any lasting disability from your work injury or illness that affects your ability to earn a living. If your injury or illness results in PD you are entitled to PD benefits, even if you are able to go back to work.What hinders people with a disability? ›
Stigma, prejudice, and discrimination: Within society, these attitudes may come from people's ideas related to disability—People may see disability as a personal tragedy, as something that needs to be cured or prevented, as a punishment for wrongdoing, or as an indication of the lack of ability to behave as expected in ...What are the advantages to being on disability? ›
- Financial Security. The most substantial benefit that Social Security provides is monthly income. ...
- Medical Coverage. ...
- Potential for PASS or Ticket to Work Program. ...
- Contacting a Social Security Attorney.
Mental disorders such as depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder are qualifying disabilities that are difficult to prove. Having a long history of medical treatments and contact with a mental health practitioner can improve your case.What gives 100% disability? ›
A 100% VA Disability Rating can be given for a single severe condition or for a group of conditions whose ratings can be combined using VA Math to equal 100%. A 100% VA Disability Rating is commonly given to veterans who have two or more limbs paralyzed or amputated, or for active diseases, like tuberculosis or cancer.What's the easiest thing to get disability for? ›
Arthritis and other musculoskeletal disabilities are the most commonly approved conditions for disability benefits. If you are unable to walk due to arthritis, or unable to perform dexterous movements like typing or writing, you will qualify.How hard is it to lose disability? ›
Social Security rarely terminates disability benefits due to medical improvement, but you can lose your SSDI or SSI benefits because of other factors, like income. Although it's rare, there are circumstances under which the Social Security Administration (SSA) can end your disability benefits.Does disability contact your doctor? ›
The disability examiner who handles your case will contact the doctors and hospitals listed on your application to request your medical records and other applicable documents. These records might serve as medical evidence to support your claim.What happens if you are on disability and then turn 65? ›
Social Security disability benefits automatically change to retirement benefits when disability beneficiaries become full retirement age. The law does not allow a person to receive both retirement and disability benefits on one earnings record at the same time.
Massachusetts – This state topped their list with the second-best livability score and fourth-best health care score. Though 10th on the list for walkability and public transit, 98.3% of residents with a disability have health insurance.How can I survive on Social Security alone? ›
- Delay Your Social Security. ...
- Pause Social Security. ...
- Consider a Move. ...
- Pay Off Your Debt Before Retiring. ...
- Explore Shared Housing Options. ...
- Strategize Social Security Survivor Benefits. ...
- Get Help To Plan Ahead. ...
- Decrease Your Transportation Costs.
On the other hand, if you receive disability benefits through the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) program, the SSA won't check your bank account. Individuals qualify for SSDI based on their work history. Claimants who receive SSDI or SSI will be subject to ongoing eligibility reviews.Does disability check your Facebook page? ›
Social Security may use your Facebook and Instagram photos to nix disability claims. Careful what you post online. The Social Security Administration may start screening your Facebook and Instagram posts to evaluate your disability claim.Can Social Security disability freeze your bank account? ›
Examples of how the automatic protection works
If you receive $1,000 in Social Security benefits by direct deposit each month, and you have $3,000 in your account, the bank can freeze $1,000 of the $3,000. The bank must give you access to the remaining $2,000 so you can continue to pay bills and withdraw cash as usual.
Does Social Security Disability Spy on You? The SSA typically does not spy on people. However, they can send representatives to your Continuing Disability Review or Consultative Examination.Can Social Security tap your phone? ›
(2) SSA employees authorized to listen-in to or record telephone calls are permitted to annotate personal identifying information about the calls, such as a person's name, Social Security number, address and/or telephone number.How much can I work and not lose my SSDI? ›
resources-supports.htm. During the trial work period, there are no limits on your earnings. During the 36-month extended period of eligibility, you usually can make no more than $1,470 ($2,460 if you are blind) a month in 2023 or your benefits will stop. These amounts are known as Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA).What happens if I don't report earnings to SSDI? ›
Once you are eligible and receiving benefit payments, you must report any income you received, or that you have returned to work. If you don't, it could result in an overpayment, penalties, and a false statement disqualification.
You may be able to choose to receive a single lump sum payment representing six months' worth of Social Security retirement benefits. The lump-sum option is only available to people who have reached full retirement age without filing to receive benefits.What is the one year rule for Social Security? ›
There is a special rule that applies to earnings for 1 year, usually the first year of retirement. Under this rule, you can get a full Social Security benefit for any whole month you are retired and earnings are below the monthly limit.Can I pay back Social Security and restart later? ›
That means this option is available only before you've reached full retirement age . It is a one-time option; you cannot do it again later. In addition, you'll have to pay back in full the amount you've been paid. Think of this process as a true Social Security do over.What if my disability check is not enough? ›
When your disability check isn't enough to live on, you may have additional options at your disposal. For example, you may qualify for extra help in specific areas such as health care costs, food, and housing. Different federal, state, and local programs may be available.Can you get disability for anxiety? ›
Yes, the Social Security Administration (SSA) considers anxiety as a disability. However, people with anxiety may find it challenging to prove that their condition qualifies them for monthly disability benefits.How much money can you make and still get SSI 2023? ›
For 2023, the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) FBR is $914 per month for an eligible individual and $1,371 per month for an eligible couple. For 2023, the amount of earnings that will have no effect on eligibility or benefits for SSI beneficiaries who are students under age 22 is $8,950 a year.Can you go to jail for not reporting income to SSI? ›
The first sanction period is a withholding of payments for six months. Subsequent sanction periods are for 12 months and then 24 months. If you intentionally withhold information to continue to receive payments, you may face criminal prosecution. Criminal penalties can include fines and imprisonment.How much Social Security will I get if I make $25000 a year? ›
If you earn $25,000 this year, $1,880 of your benefits would need to be withheld (i.e. ($25000 - $21240)/2). Therefore, if your monthly benefit amount is $1,886, Social Security would need to withhold roughly one full month of your benefits.How much will disability checks be in 2023? ›
In 2023, the maximum amount you can earn from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is $3,627 per month. That's a nice sum, but most people won't get that much. The average SSDI benefit is only about $1,358.Will people on SSI disability get a raise in 2023? ›
Social Security benefits and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments will increase by 8.7% in 2023. This is the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) required by law. The increase will begin with benefits that Social Security beneficiaries receive in January 2023.
The latest such increase, 8.7 percent, becomes effective January 2023.How much money can you make without interfering with Social Security? ›
If you will reach full retirement age in 2023, the limit on your earnings for the months before full retirement age is $56,520. Starting with the month you reach full retirement age, there is no limit on how much you can earn and still receive your benefits.Does Social Security check bank accounts? ›
The Social Security Administration can only check your bank accounts if you have allowed them to do so. For those receiving Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the SSA can check your bank account because they were given permission.What is highest Social Security payout? ›
In 2023, the average senior on Social Security collects $1,827 a month. But you may be eligible for a lot more money than that. In fact, some seniors this year are looking at a monthly benefit of $4,555, which is the maximum Social Security will pay. Here's how to score a benefit that high.What is the Social Security 5 year rule? ›
You must have worked and paid Social Security taxes in five of the last 10 years. • If you also get a pension from a job where you didn't pay Social Security taxes (e.g., a civil service or teacher's pension), your Social Security benefit might be reduced.How much your Social Security check will be if you make $100000 per year? ›
If your highest 35 years of indexed earnings averaged out to $100,000, your AIME would be roughly $8,333. If you add all three of these numbers together, you would arrive at a PIA of $2,893.11, which equates to about $34,717.32 of Social Security benefits per year at full retirement age.What income is not counted for SSDI? ›
A disabled person on SSDI or applying for SSDI cannot earn more than $1,470 per month by working. However someone who is earning SSDI can have any amount of income from investments, spousal income and any amount of assets.What happens if you don t have enough credits for Social Security disability? ›
You cannot get Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) benefits on your own work record if you don't have enough work credits, but you might qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments. While the SSDI program requires applicants to meet a work credits requirement, the SSI program does not.Will I lose my SSDI benefits if I'm working over the SGA limit? ›
If the worker's average income during the trial work period met or exceeded the SGA threshold, disability benefits are terminated. If the earnings fall under the SGA amount, benefits will continue.