Friday, June 20, 2014

WORK: What’s It Worth When You’re On SSDI or SSI by Carl Blumenthal

WORK: What’s It Worth When You’re On SSDI or SSI
By Carl Blumenthal
Why work? Obviously, to make money for the basics and little luxuries of life. In addition, gainful employment defines social acceptance.
Fortunately, even if you receive Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you can earn more with a job because the Social Security Administration (SSA) allows you to work within some limits, to help with the transition to self-sufficiency. Thus, you can add to the average SSDI monthly payment nationally of $1,130 (2013) or $808 (2014) for a New York SSI recipient living alone.
For those on SSDI, nine Trial Work Periods (TWP's) of a month each are allowed over five years, to get your feet wet if you haven't worked in a long time. During those TWP's, you can gain as much income as possible without losing your full benefits. (So, if you become a car salesman, you can keep all those juicy commissions.)
For 2014, a TWP consists of more than $770 per month. Less than that, you don't use up any of the nine TWP's you're allowed. And, you can still make up to $1,070 per month, what's called Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), and get your full benefits for up to three years, after you've completed the nine TWP's.
For folks on SSI, the Social Security Administration (SSA) basically subtracts $1 from your check for every $2 in extra income. This is a simplification because SSA excludes the first $85 of your earnings when calculating your change in benefits. 
Say your monthly benefit is $808 and you get $1,085 a month at a new job. Your benefit would be reduced by $500 for that period ($1,085-$85=$1,000/2=$500), but given the extra $1,085, that's still a total of $1,393 ($808-$500=$308+$1,085=$1,393), so you come out way ahead.
To be on the safe side, if you want to continue SOME benefits, don't earn more than twice your monthly SSI level. Certainly, that's not as good a deal as SSDI recipients get. But, you'll do better in the in the long run through employment.
Why do the two programs treat people differently?
Because SSDI is based on the amount of on-the-books past employment. To be eligible, you must have earned at least $4,800 for each of 10 recent years. Like Medicare, which SSDI recipients also receive, SSDI is a government-run insurance program, supported mainly by deductions from workers’ paychecks.
SSI is an income supplement for disabled people with little or no money, which automatically qualifies you for Medicaid. Usually, SSI recipients have not worked enough to qualify for SSDI. Because the program is supported by general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes withheld from wages, Congress made the rules less generous for people who work on SSI.
However, money isn't the only reason to work: That's why the federal government's Eight Dimensions of Wellness (for people with mental health or substance abuse challenges) include one dimension for finances and one for employment. You get satisfaction and self-confidence from being employed.
As Sigmund Freud famously said, "Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness." Plus, the boredom and frustration of doing nothing can lead to all kinds of mischief, not only in your head but also in your home and on the street. So, one of the best ways to get and stay busy is to work, whether for pay or volunteer.
Finally, here are two notes of warning: Report your earnings regularly to your local SSA office to avoid overpayments you might be obligated to return and also inform SSA of an improvement in your medical condition such that you no longer qualify as disabled. In the latter case, enrollment in a Ticket-to-Work or other rehabilitation program could postpone a required SSA medical re-evaluation.
(For information about Ticket-to-Work and other Social Security work incentives, including how to maintain Medicare or Medicaid, see the Coalition of Behavioral Health Agencies’ newly-revised WORKbook: A Guide to New York City’s Mental Health Employment Programs. Call 212-742-1600 for a free copy or see the guide at
Note: Carl Blumenthal is a former employment specialist with NetWORK plus, Baltic Street AEH’s assisted competitive employment (ACE) program. He receives SSDI and works part-time at the Center for Environmental Therapeutics (

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