Indicators of Welfare Dependence: Annual Report to Congress, 2009-2013. Supplemental Security Income


The Supplemental Security Income (SSI) Program is a means-tested, federally administered income assistance program authorized by title XVI of the Social Security Act. Established in 1972 (Public Law 92-603) and begun in 1974, SSI provides monthly cash payments in accordance with uniform, nationwide eligibility requirements to needy aged, blind and disabled persons. To qualify for SSI payments, a person must satisfy the program criteria for age, blindness, or disability. Children may qualify for SSI if they are under age 18 and meet the applicable SSI disability or blindness, income and resource requirements. Individuals and married couples are eligible for SSI if their countable incomes fall below the federal maximum monthly SSI benefit levels of $674 for an individual and $1,011 for a married couple (if both are eligible) in fiscal year 2009. SSI eligibility is restricted to qualified persons who have countable resources/assets of not more than $2,000, or $3,000 for a couple.

The Social Security Administration (SSA) administers the SSI program. Since its inception, SSI has been viewed as the “program of last resort.” Therefore, SSA helps recipients obtain any other public assistance that they are eligible to receive before providing SSI benefits. After evaluating all other income, SSI pays what is necessary to bring an individual to the statutorily prescribed income “floor.”

Prior to the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), no individual could receive both SSI payments and Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) benefits. If eligible for both, the individual had to choose which benefit to receive. Generally, the AFDC agency encouraged individuals to file for SSI and, once the SSI payments had started, the individual was removed from the AFDC filing unit. Since states have the authority to set TANF eligibility standards and benefit levels under PRWORA, there is no federal prohibition against individuals receiving both TANF benefits and SSI.

With the exception of California, which converted SNAP benefits to cash payments that are included in the state supplementary payment, SSI recipients may be eligible to receive SNAP benefits. If all household members receive SSI, the household is categorically eligible for SNAP and does not need to meet the SNAP financial eligibility standards. If SSI beneficiaries live in households in which other household members do not receive SSI benefits, the household must meet the net income eligibility standard of the SNAP to be eligible for SNAP benefits.

Legislative Changes

Public Law 104-121, the Contract with America Advancement Act of 1996, prohibited SSI eligibility to individuals whose drug addiction and/or alcoholism (DA&A) is a contributing factor material to the finding of disability. This provision applied to individuals who filed for benefits on or after the date of enactment (March 29, 1996) and to individuals whose claims were finally adjudicated on or after the date of enactment. It applied to current beneficiaries on January 1, 1997.

PRWORA made several changes designed to maintain the SSI program’s goal of limiting benefits to severely disabled children. First, the act replaced the former “comparable severity” test with a new definition of disability specifically for children, based on a medically determinable physical or mental impairment that results in “marked and severe functional limitations.” Second, the Social Security Administration discontinued use of the Individualized Functional Assessment (IFA) for children which it had implemented in 1991 following the Supreme Court's decision in Sullivan v Zebley, 493 U.S. 521 (1990).Third, references to “maladaptive behaviors” in certain sections of the Listing of Impairments (among medical criteria for evaluation of mental and emotional disorders in the domain of personal/behavioral function) were eliminated. The latter two provisions were effective for all new and pending applications upon enactment (August 22, 1996). Beneficiaries who were receiving benefits due to an IFA or under the Listings because of limitations resulting from maladaptive behaviors received notice no later than January 1, 1997, that their benefits might end when their case was redetermined. Additional provisions of PRWORA with impact on enrollment are the requirement that eligibility be redetermined when beneficiaries reach age 18, using the adult disability standard; that "continuing disability reviews" be done for children; and that children who were eligible due to low birth weight have their eligibility redetermined at age one.

Title IV of Public Law 104-193 (PRWORA) also made significant changes in the eligibility of noncitizens for SSI benefits. Some of the restrictions were subsequently moderated by Public Law 104-208, Public Law 106-169, and most notably by the Balanced Budget Act of 1997 (Public Law 105-33), which “grandfathered” immigrants who were receiving SSI at the time of enactment of the PRWORA. Those immigrants who entered the U.S. after August 22, 1996, may be eligible to receive SSI after having been “lawfully admitted for permanent residence.” In addition, Public Law 106-386, the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act of 2000, provides that noncitizens who are victims of “severe forms of trafficking in persons in the United States” shall be treated as refugees for purposes of SSI and be eligible for SSI benefits for the first seven years they are in the United States.

Several provisions aimed at reducing SSI fraud and improving recovery of overpayments were enacted in 1999 as part of the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999 (Public Law 106-169). Other legislation enacted in 1999 (Public Law 106-170) provides additional work incentives for disabled beneficiaries of SSI (e.g., the Ticket to Work and Self-Sufficiency Program).

The Social Security Protection Act of 2004 (Public Law 108-203), enacted March 2, 2004, introduced program and beneficiary protections covering the use of representative payees and required documentation of changes in beneficiary status. It also extended SSI eligibility to blind or disabled children living with a parent assigned to permanent U.S. military duty outside of the U.S. but who were not receiving SSI while in the U.S. Furthermore, Public Law 109-163 provides that individuals who were made ineligible for SSI because of their spouses or parents being called to active military duty would not have to file a new application for SSI benefits if they again could be eligible for benefits before the end of 24 consecutive months of ineligibility.

The Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (Public Law 109-171) included two SSI program reforms, designed to improve the accuracy of disability determinations and benefit awards, among other program goals.

SSI Program Data

The following tables and figures provide SSI program data:

  • Tables SSI 1 through SSI 5 and Figure SSI 1 present national caseload and expenditure trend data on the SSI program;
  • Table SSI 6 presents demographic characteristics of the SSI caseload;
  • Tables SSI 7 through SSI 9 present state-by-state trend data on the SSI program through fiscal year 2009.

SSI Caseload Trends (Tables SSI 1 and SSI 2 and Figure SSI 1). From 1990 to 1995, the number of SSI beneficiaries increased from 4.8 million to 6.5 million, an average growth rate of over 7 percent per year. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of beneficiaries fluctuated between 6.5 and 6.6 million persons. Between 2000 and 2009, the caseload increased from 6.6 to 7.7 million beneficiaries, an average annual growth rate of 1.7 percent. Table SSI 1 presents information on the total number of persons receiving SSI payments in December of each year from 1974 through 2009, and also presents recipients by eligibility category (aged, blind, and disabled) and by type of recipient (child, adults ages 18-64, and adults ages 65 or older). See also Tables IND 3c and IND 4c in Chapter II for further data on trends in recipiency and participation.

The composition of the SSI caseload has been shifting over time, as shown in Table SSI 1. The number of beneficiaries eligible because of age has been declining steadily, from a high of 2.3 million persons in December 1975 to a low of 1.2 million persons in December 2004 and has since remained essentially unchanged. At the same time, there has been growth in the number of blind and disabled beneficiaries, from 1.7 million in December 1974 to 6.5 million in December 2009. Moreover, the number of disabled children has increased, particularly during the 1990s, when the number of disabled children receiving SSI increased from 309,000 in December 1990 to 955,000 in December 1996. The number of disabled children decreased over the next three years, but has been increasing since 2000, reaching just under 1.2 million children in 2009.

Several factors have contributed to the growth of the Supplemental Security Income program. Expansions in disability eligibility (particularly for mentally impaired adults and for children), increased outreach, overall growth in immigration, and transfers from state programs were among the key factors identified in a 1995 study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO). GAO concluded that three groups – adults with mental impairments, children, and non-citizens – accounted for nearly 90 percent of the SSI program’s growth in the early 1990s. The growth in disabled children beneficiaries is generally believed to be due to outreach activities, the Supreme Court decision in the Zebley case, expansion of the medical impairment category, and reduction in reviews of continuing eligibility.9

SSI Expenditures (Tables SSI 3 through SSI 5). The total amount of federally administered SSI benefits has increased over the past four years from $40.9 billion (inflation adjusted) in 2005 to over $46.6 billion in 2009, as shown in Table SSI 3. Average monthly federally administered benefits per person were $499 in 2009, up (3.4 percent) from the 2005 inflation adjusted benefit level of $482. For more details see Table SSI 4.

SSI Recipient Characteristics (Table SSI 6). Over the last 20 years, the percentage of aged SSI recipients has dramatically decreased, while the percentage of disabled recipients has increased substantially. As shown in Table SSI 6, the proportion of SSI aged recipients has decreased significantly, from 44 percent in 1980 to under 16 percent in 2009. During the same period, the percentage of disabled recipients increased from 55 percent in 1980 to 84 percent in 2009.

Figure SSI 1. SSI Recipients by Age: 1974 – 2009

Source: Social Security Administration, SSI Annual Statistical Report, 2009 (available at

Figure SSI 2. Percent SSI Recipients by Age: 1974 – 2009

Source: Social Security Administration, SSI Annual Statistical Report, 2009 (available at

8 In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that the IFA (or a residual functional capacity assessment) that applied to adults whose condition did not meet or equal a listing of medical impairments to determine eligibility should also be applied to children whose condition did not meet or equal the medical listing of impairments.

9 The GAO study estimated that 87,000 children were added to the SSI caseload after the IFA for children was initiated.

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