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Is disability better than Social Security?

Many people facing serious illness or injury ask themselves this question. There are pros and cons to both Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability benefits. Understanding the key differences can help you decide which program may be better for your situation.

What are the eligibility requirements for SSDI and SSI disability benefits?

Both SSDI and SSI require you to have a medical condition that prevents you from working and is expected to last at least one year or result in death. However, the non-medical eligibility criteria differ significantly:

  • SSDI requires you to have worked and paid Social Security taxes for about 10 years (depends on your age) within the last 15 years before becoming disabled.
  • SSI does not require you to have a work history and is based solely on financial need. Your income and assets must be below strict limits to qualify.

In general, SSDI serves people who have a strong recent work history, while SSI serves people with limited income and resources. Many people qualify for both programs concurrently.

How much money can you get from SSDI vs. SSI?

SSDI pays higher monthly benefits than SSI, but SSI has advantages like Medicaid coverage:

  • SSDI pays up to $4,194 per month for a disabled worker in 2023. Benefits are based on your past earnings history.
  • SSI maximum federal payment is $914 per month for an individual and $1,371 for a couple in 2023. Some states add a small supplement.
  • SSI recipients automatically qualify for Medicaid health insurance. SSDI has a 24-month Medicare waiting period.

SSDI tends to pay significantly higher monthly income replacement to those with a strong work history. But SSI comes with Medicaid benefits and can supplement a low SSDI benefit.

How does disability approval differ between the programs?

Both programs use the Social Security Administration’s strict disability criteria. Key differences include:

  • SSDI considers if you can do your past work or adjust to other work based on your resume.
  • SSI only looks at whether any type of work exists that you could still perform in the national economy.
  • SSDI has a 5-month waiting period before benefits begin. SSI can begin the month after approval.

These differences mean SSDI approval can be harder if you have a limited work history. The work-related criteria for SSDI creates an advantage for those with longer careers.

Does SSDI have advantages over SSI?

There are a few key advantages SSDI offers compared to SSI:

  • Higher monthly payments based on your past earnings.
  • Potential eligibility for Social Security retirement benefits later in life.
  • Disability benefits can continue if you recover and return to work part-time.

For those with a strong work history, SSDI may pay $1,000 to $3,000 per month or higher based on your prior income. And it comes with the added security of keeping your connection to Social Security retirement benefits.

When might SSI be a better choice over SSDI?

SSI disability may be preferable in these situations:

  • You lack the recent work history for SSDI.
  • You have very limited income and assets to qualify for SSI.
  • You need Medicaid health coverage because you cannot afford medical treatment otherwise.
  • Your SSDI benefit would be under $500 per month due to low lifetime earnings.

For those with minimal work history or dire financial need, SSI can provide a basic income safety net and critical healthcare coverage through Medicaid.

Can you receive both SSDI and SSI benefits concurrently?

Yes, it is possible to receive both SSDI and SSI benefits at the same time if you are eligible for both programs. Here is how it works:

  • Your SSDI benefit will be calculated based on your work history and earnings.
  • Your SSI payment will be reduced by the amount of your SSDI payment.
  • Your total combined monthly income will equal:
    • SSDI monthly benefit
    • + SSI supplement reduced by the SSDI amount
  • You also retain Medicaid coverage from being an SSI recipient.

This allows you to take advantage of both programs at once. The SSI supplement can bump up a low SSDI benefit.

Can you transition from SSI to SSDI later?

Yes, it is possible to start out receiving SSI, and then transition to SSDI once you build up a work history over time. This may happen if:

  • You develop a disability at a young age with no work history.
  • You work and pay Social Security taxes for a number of years while disabled.
  • Your work history becomes sufficient to qualify for SSDI.

SSA will conduct an SSDI evaluation at your request once you meet the recency and duration requirements. If approved, your SSI payments will be converted over to SSDI.

How are Medicare benefits affected by SSDI vs SSI?

Program Medicare Eligibility
SSDI Eligible for Medicare after 24 months of disability benefits.
SSI Automatically eligible for Medicaid health coverage.

A major benefit of SSI is immediate access to Medicaid. With SSDI, you need to wait up to 2 years before receiving Medicare coverage. This gap in healthcare benefits is an important consideration.

Can you work while collecting SSDI or SSI disability benefits?

Both programs allow you to attempt to return to work under certain conditions:

  • SSDI: You can earn up to $1,470 per month in 2023 with no effect on benefits. Higher earnings trigger gradual reductions.
  • SSI: Every $2 above $65 per month causes a $1 reduction in your SSI payment.

SSDI offers more flexibility and incentives to attempt part-time work. SSI requires strict accounting of all earnings that reduce your payments.


In summary, there are advantages and disadvantages to both Social Security disability programs:

  • SSDI advantages: Higher benefits, Medicare coverage, supports return to work.
  • SSI advantages: For those with limited income/assets, immediate Medicaid coverage.

The best approach depends on your work history and financial situation. Many people find receiving SSDI and SSI concurrently maximizes their benefits. Consulting with a Social Security disability expert can help you make the best choice.