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The federal Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program provides monthly cash assistance to people who are disabled, blind, or elderly and have little income and few assets.In December 2013, nearly 8.4 million people collected SSI benefits (see Figure 1).[1] For nearly three-fifths of recipients, SSI represents their only source of income.[2] Congress created SSI in 1972 to replace the patchwork system of federal grants to states for aid to the aged, blind, or disabled.SSA will verify the applicant’s identity, age, work history, and financial qualifications.

Over that time, SSI has changed from a program that mainly supplemented Social Security income for elderly adults to a broader anti-poverty program that aids the disabled of all ages.SSI is an increasingly important program for children and persons with disabilities.In determining a person’s SSI eligibility and benefit levels, SSA exempts the first per month of unearned income, such as Social Security benefits, pensions, interest income, or child support (this is known as the “general income exclusion”) as well as the first per month of earnings (this is known as the “earned income exclusion”).[5] Above those thresholds, each dollar of income reduces SSI benefits by just 50 cents — a provision that is meant to encourage work.SSA also exempts certain work-related expenses when reducing SSI benefits because of earnings.According to the Social Security Administration (SSA), which administers SSI, those grants were “intended to supplement the incomes of individuals who were ineligible for Social Security or whose benefits could not provide a basic living.”[3] Since its launch in 1974, SSI has guaranteed a minimum level of income to those who qualify.

Although run by the same agency, SSI is distinct from the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) programs commonly known as Social Security. Many SSI recipients have worked long enough to collect Social Security but their Social Security benefit is low enough that they also qualify for SSI.(A slightly different definition applies to disabled children under age 18.) If the DDS initially denies the application, individuals have several levels of appeal and may choose to be represented by an attorney.Since 1974, the number of SSI recipients has slightly more than doubled (see Figure 3).Typically, recipients must also meet additional criteria; in the case of SSI, they must also be elderly, blind, or disabled.The Social Security Administration describes SSI as “assistance of last resort.” While many SSI recipients also collect Social Security, a work history is not required for SSI.And the percentage of people 65 and older who receive SSI has continued to fall (see Figure 4), chiefly because of increases in Social Security payments and restrictions on eligibility for legal immigrants who arrived after 1996.