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Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared on The Penny Hoarder.
Anytime a letter bearing the seal of the Social Security Administration arrives, James feels afraid to open it.
A 34-year-old with cerebral palsy, he depends on Social Security disability benefits for the majority of his income. The benefits cover his rent and bills each month. But it’s not enough to live on, so he supplements it with side gigs like DoorDash, Instacart and other delivery apps.
It’s a difficult, frustrating balancing act, trying to work enough to maintain independence — but not so much that his benefits are cut off. It’s also suffused with fear. James talked to The Penny Hoarder about his experience but asked that his last name not be used out of concern of running afoul of the federal agency.
Millions of people are in James’ situation, fearful and confused by the labyrinth of rules governing their benefits.
Disability benefits experts say discrimination, confusion regarding the rules and fear of benefits being cut at any time are all too common. And that’s despite the official Social Security position that people on disability should work to their fullest potential.
Here’s a primer on how the system works.
Is It Legal to Work While on Disability?
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Yes, it’s even encouraged. The Social Security Administration helps disabled people find employment through work-incentive programs. How much a disabled worker is allowed to work and earn depends on several factors, and the two primary forms of assistance — Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) — work very differently.
To be eligible for either program, the Social Security Administration first determines if applicants are disabled using a specific definition.
According to the SSA, “disabled” means applicants:
- Are totally disabled (not partially disabled or disabled in the short-term).
- Can’t do work they previously could before the disability.
- Are unable to adjust to other work because of a medical condition.
- And the disability has lasted (or is expected to last) for at least one year or will result in death.
Beyond this definition, the programs vary greatly.
“Sometimes even beneficiaries don’t get the distinction between the two,” says Kathleen Romig, a Social Security policy expert at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “And the work rules are totally different.”
Supplemental Security Income (SSI)
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Supplemental Security Income is a financial-need-based program for elderly and disabled people. The federal government pays a stipend designed to …….