Chapter 3: Supplemental Security Income

Issues: Supplementary 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 (P.L. 92-603), with benefits first paid in 1974, SSI provides monthly cash payments in accordance with uniform, nationwide eligibility requirements to needy aged, blind, and disabled persons. In August 2018, there were 8.2 million SSI recipients receiving $4.8 billion in monthly benefit payments. [1]

The SSI program replaced the federal-state programs of Old Age Assistance and Aid to the Blind, established by the original Social Security Act of 1935, as well as the program of Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled established by the Social Security Act Amendments of 1950. Under these programs, federal matching funds were offered to the states to enable them to give cash relief, “as far as practicable” in each state, to eligible persons whom the states deemed needy. The states set benefit levels and administered these programs. These federal-state adult assistance programs continue to operate in Guam, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands. Under the Covenant to Establish a Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands, enacted as Public Law 94-241 on March 24, 1976, the Northern Mariana Islands is the only jurisdiction outside the 50 states and the District of Columbia in which residents are eligible for the SSI program.

The Congress intended the SSI program to be more than just a federal version of the former state adult assistance programs, which it replaced. In describing the program, the report of the Committee on Finance stated:

The Committee bill would make a major departure from the traditional concept of public assistance as it now applies to the aged, the blind, and the disabled. Building on the present Social Security program, it would create a new federal program administered by the Social Security Administration (SSA), designed to provide a positive assurance that the nation's aged, blind, and disabled people would no longer have to subsist on below poverty level incomes. (Senate Report No. 92-1230, p. 384; U.S. Senate, Committee on Finance, Sept. 26, 1972).

The SSI program was envisioned as a basic national income maintenance system for the aged, blind, and disabled, which would differ from the state programs it replaced in a number of ways.  It would be administered by SSA in a manner as comparable as possible to the way in which benefits were administered under the Old-Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance (OASDI) program, commonly known as Social Security. While it was understood that modifications would be necessary to make SSA's systems work for the new program, SSI was seen as an add-on rather than a new system.  

Under the former adult assistance programs, the amount of assistance could vary from person to person according to an evaluation of the individual's needs. The SSI program, by contrast, represented a “flat grant” approach in which there would be a uniform federal income support level.

It should be noted that even though SSA administers the SSI program, SSI is not the same as Social Security. The SSI program is funded by general revenues of the U.S. Treasury – which are comprised of personal income taxes, corporate taxes, and other taxes. Social Security benefits are funded primarily by the Social Security taxes paid by workers, employers, and self-employed persons. The programs also differ in other ways such as the conditions of eligibility and the method of determining payments. In addition, states have the option of supplementing the basic federal SSI payment. In most cases, state supplementary payments are administered by the state.

Congressional Research Service (CRS) Reports

For more programmatic information, please see reports published by the Congressional Research Service.

CRS works exclusively for the United States Congress, providing policy and legal analysis to Committees and Members of both the House and Senate, regardless of party affiliation.

Legislative History

The following provides a legislative history of Supplemental Security Income (SSI) from the prior Green Book through most of the 115th Congress. For prior history, please see prior editions of the Green Book

Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (P.L. 115-97)

Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) accounts are state-sponsored, tax-advantaged savings accounts for individuals with certain disabilities that began before the age of 26. For the designated beneficiary of an ABLE account, assets in the account and withdrawals from the account for qualified disability expenses receive preferential treatment under the federal tax code as well as under certain public assistance programs, including SSI.

The 2017 tax reform law made three changes to the federal tax code concerning ABLE accounts, all of which are set to expire at the start of 2026. First, it permits certain employed designated beneficiaries to make special contributions to their own ABLE accounts in excess of the base annual limit ($15,000 in 2018), up to the lesser of (1) the designated beneficiary’s earnings for the year or (2) the poverty guideline for a one-person household for the preceding year. For 2018, the limit on special contributions in most states is $12,060. Designated beneficiaries are ineligible to make special contributions if they participated in certain employer-sponsored retirement plans during the year, such as a 401(k) plan.

Second, the law allows designated beneficiaries who meet certain requirements to claim the saver’s income tax credit for non-rollover contributions they made to their ABLE accounts during the year. The amount of the non-refundable credit depends on the beneficiary's filing status and adjusted gross income and is limited to $2,000 per individual.

Third, the law permits funds to be rolled over from a 529 account into an ABLE account on a tax-free basis, provided the ABLE account owner is also the designated beneficiary of the 529 account or a family member of such beneficiary. The rollover is subject to the base annual limit on all contributions to an ABLE account ($15,000 in 2018) and must be made in a timely manner.

Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-123)

Under SSA’s Prisoner Incentive Payment Program, state or local correctional facilities may receive incentive payments from SSA for reporting information to the agency on the confinement of Social Security or SSI recipients. The confinement must be reported within a specified number of days, and the amount of the incentive payment is based on the number of days from confinement to report. There are two incentive payment amounts: $200 and $400.

The Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 decreased the timeframe for reporting the confinement of a SSI recipient for purposes of the $400 incentive payment from 30 days to 15 days. Correctional facilities remain eligible for the $200 incentive payment for notifying SSA of the confinement of a SSI recipient, provided the notification is made after 15 days but within 90 days. The law did not change the timeframes that correctional facilities have to report the confinement of a Social Security recipient for purposes of the $200 and $400 incentive payments.

Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act of 2018 (P.L. 115-165)

The Strengthening Protections for Social Security Beneficiaries Act of 2018 made a number of changes to SSA’s representative payee program, which provides benefits management for Social Security or SSI recipients who are unable to manage or direct the management of their own benefits. Among other things, the law includes the following provisions:

  • Requires SSA to make annual grants to state Protection and Advocacy groups to conduct periodic onsite reviews of certain representative payees.
  • Waives the requirement to file an annual accounting form for representative payees who are (1) custodial parents of minor or disabled recipients or (2) spouses of disabled recipients.
  • Clarifies that in situations where the minor recipient is in foster care and the state is the representative payee, the state is liable for the repayment of any overpayment incurred.
  • Requires SSA to identify represented minor recipients in state foster care and re-determine the appropriateness of their representative payee in certain instances, as well as directs SSA to study ways of improving coordination with state Adult Protective Services programs and with state guardianship courts.
  • Allows adult recipients to designate one or more individuals to serve as their representative payee and requires SSA to select the preferred designee, subject to certain conditions.
  • Prohibits individuals convicted of certain crimes from serving as a representative payee as well as prohibits recipients with their own representative payee from serving as the representative payee of others.
  • Requires SSA to reassess its order of preference for selecting representative payees.


This page was prepared October 2018 for the 2018 version of the House Ways and Means Committee Green Book.