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How Supplemental Security Income differs from Social Security

Supplemental Security Income and Social Security income both aim to provide benefits to disabled individuals and other qualifying individuals who need financial assistance. Many people may not be aware of the differences between these two programs, but SSI benefits are distinguished from Social Security in several important ways.

One of the biggest ways that Supplemental Security Income differs from Social Security is that SSI is a means-tested program, as opposed to a social insurance program. Social Security constitutes a social insurance program because it is a type of protection for workers who lose their employment-related income. For this reason, an employment history is required to receive benefits. However, because Social Security is not a means-tested program, nearly all workers who have a qualifying employment history are eligible to receive benefits.

In contrast, Supplemental Security Income is means-tested but requires no work history. This means that in addition to eligibility criteria related to disability, blindness or advanced age, there is an additional eligibility requirement that an applicant for SSI benefits have very limited income and resources. Perhaps because of the means-tested requirements, many of the people eligible for benefits under Supplemental Security Income program do not seek benefits or participate in the program. This contrasts with Social Security, a system is which universal (or nearly universal) participation is necessary and almost all of those eligible collect their benefits.

An additional difference between the two programs is the way that they have--or have not--changed over time. Social Security income has always been available to, and received by, the disabled and the elderly. The evolution of the SSI program, however, has seen the program develop from providing supplemental income to adults of advanced age to providing assistance aiming to keep a broader population--such as disabled individuals in all age ranges--out of extreme poverty.

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