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Establishing Social Security Eligibility

by Susan O'Mara, Valerie Brooke, and Elizabeth Getzel

The Social Security Administration (SSA) provides benefits to about 44 million Americans. One out of every three people receiving Social Security benefits is a person with a disability or a dependent or survivor of a worker.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) are SSA's two disability programs.

The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program is funded by the general revenues of the Federal Treasury and is intended to provide a minimum level of income to persons who are aged, disabled, or blind and demonstrate economic need. The SSI program is meant to supplement any income an individual might already have to ensure a certain level of income to meet basic living expenses. The dollar amount received in SSI on a monthly basis varies from person to person and is computed each month, taking into account an individual's current financial situation.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) provides benefits to individuals with disabilities who are "insured" by workers' contributions to the Social Security trust fund. These contributions are the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA) social security tax paid on their earnings or those of their spouses or parents. Title II of the Social Security Act authorizes SSDI benefits.

The disability eligibility criteria for both programs are the same and require that a person have a medically determinable disability that prevents them from working at a substantial level.

Strategies for Establishing Eligibility

Gather information about SSA prior to a formal application meeting. Talk to SSA staff to gather general information and/or view the SSA web site.

Apply in person.

Bring a friend or family member to take notes and to assist in asking questions.

Any time SSA facts are stated to you ask for copies of written information explaining these facts.

Bring all records, such as public school, vocational rehabilitation, and/or medical, which would assist SSA in making a disability determination.

Ask about the work incentives programs and how they are used to determine eligibility for SSI and SSDI.

Obtain the names and numbers of SSA's local work incentives liaisons or outreach specialists.

Develop your own personal Social Security notebook complete with contact names, dates that contacts were made, and any information obtained. Save all written notices and letters.