The short answer is: probably if you are “disabled enough”.
Supplemental Security Income(SSI) is a needs-based program specifically designed to help people who do not have a work history to apply for SSDI.
Generally, these are people who have been affected by their condition since birth or childhood, or who have spent long periods of their lives un- or under-employed, or who have predominantly worked off the books.
Eligibility is based on the combination of your disabling condition and your financial need.
What is Supplemental Security Income(SSI)?
SSI is a program for people who are long-termed disabled and have less than $2,000 in assets.
SSI participants are paid a small stipend(varies by state and situation but generally under $1,000 per person) and are immediately eligible for Medicaid benefits(state insurance) and SNAP(previously known as food stamps).
People can be eligible for SSI from birth if they have a severe and obvious disability, or slightly later in life if they show signs of permanent disability(developmental disabilities and other issues which severely limits their long-term potential to work).
Parents can apply on behalf of any children they have with severe impairments.
As an adult, you can apply for SSI if you have a condition that has worsened, or if you are injured to the point of disability in an accident, or if you were supported by a spouse and have since divorced(and your condition prevents you from working).
Also, some people who collect SSDI are eligible for SSI if their monthly check is under SGA.
People on SSI also are only eligible to remain covered if their income is and remains below Substantial Gainful Activity(SGA), which at the time of writing is $1,180($2,400 if you are blind), and their assets every month remain under $2,000.
In the case of parents applying for their child, the parent’s assets are considered, but the asset limit is per person, so a child in a single-parent situation has an asset limit of $4,000($2,000 for the parent and $2000 for the child).
If both parents are in the picture and married to one another, the asset limit is $5,000($3,000 for the parents as a couple, and $2,000 for the child).
So if you are disabled and your child is as well, you both(or all in the case of additional disabled children) may be eligible for SSI.
If your child is an adult, you also may help them apply as an individual(without your income being considered), which allows them to access a variety of independent living options.
What are the assets and how are they calculated?
SSI is pretty strict in its definition of assets. Assets are pretty much anything that you own that has a measurable cash surrender value. The only exceptions in their consideration are home and car ownership.
They will not count the home you live in(if you own it), or a car that you own. Everything else is fair game. That means that if you have any investments, retirement savings, or money in the bank, they will count those as assets and those assets will be added.
If you have life insurance, that also has a cash surrender value and can be counted as well. If you are collecting alimony or child support, that also is often counted as unearned income.
If you reach the point of needing SSI but are concerned about being over their limits, think about ways that you may be able to manage your assets.
Al and I have always maintained separate bank accounts specifically so that if I needed some of the asset-based support, it would be less complicated to apply(we are intentionally not legally married).
That will also help us if Al needs to apply for support in the future, as joint bank accounts are considered in their full amount for each person on the account.
You do need to prove the existence of every asset you have, and in many cases, SSI has a recertification process where you reconfirm that you still meet the asset limits.
There are also a couple of programs specifically designed to work around the asset limits by creating bank accounts or trusts that can only be used for certain specific purposes.
Generally, these accounts are usable for people on either SSI or SSDI. The PASS program is one example and there is also a banking program called ABLE
What is Medicaid?
Medicaid is a state-level insurance program. Each state has its own form of Medicaid with its own rules. In some cases, there are multiple options for coverage(in New Jersey, there is no more original Medicaid, but each county has four or five HMO’s to choose from).
When you first enroll in Medicaid, you generally can select which HMO(Health Maintenance Organization) will cover you, though sometimes they will automatically enroll you in one and then allow you to choose during the next open enrollment period.
Open enrollment is generally mid-November into December, and the selected coverage starts in January.
Each state has its own Medicaid rules and services, but generally, Medicaid coverage has fewer options than Medicare but does have the advantage of paying the entirety of each bill(Medicare pays 80% of covered costs).
Often Medicaid HMO coverage varies even at the county level, so your county might not have a particular option, even if it is available in other counties in your state.
Your Medicaid program controls what doctors you are eligible to see, and what medications are covered, so it is very important to look over your options every year to make sure you continually have the best coverage. The information can be confusing and poorly explained, but it still remains very important.
There are some programs out there that can help you know your options, but they can make mistakes too, so you are better served making multiple calls and having a list of your desired doctors and needed medications.
Some Medicaid programs allow you to see doctors outside of their preferred network, usually at a higher charge(if a program covers all but one specialist you see once or twice a year it may be worth doing), but some insist that you can only see doctors within their network.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
Better known as food stamps, SNAP provides a monthly stipend for purchasing food products.
The precise amount varies, but generally, it averages out to under $1.50/person/meal.
SNAP does not cover any non-food expense, such as toilet paper, paper plates, napkins, or cooking equipment.
If you get SSI you are also automatically eligible for SNAP.
If there are multiple people in your household who qualify for SNAP, you will receive one card for the household, and the application is also for the entire household.
So if you are applying and supporting a child or children, or if your household includes parents or grandparents who also require SNAP assistance, your application would include all family members and the card would be stocked with payments for each family member.
If you are in the situation where you are living with a roommate or don’t have your own property(sleeping on somebody’s couch, as an example), you are eligible for SNAP if the people you are staying with are not – as long as you can prove that you have a separate space to store your food.
How do I prove my disability?
What you do need to have to get SSI is medical proof of your disability.
This means you need to go to doctors and either have a diagnosis or be in the process of getting diagnosed.
Many very visible conditions are relatively easy for a doctor to diagnose and to argue why you should be on SSI(Downs Syndrome, for example, can generally be spotted by the layperson on the street, and the set of symptoms involved will always make work more challenging than somebody without the condition, and in some cases may make it impossible).
If you have an invisible illness or one that’s more complicated or nuanced(such as multiple conditions that individually aren’t disabling but are when put together), you may need more medical support both to confirm that you have a disabling condition, treat it, and prove that in your particular case, you cannot work or make SGA.
It may be possible to get help with your application from a social worker in various settings if you need that support.
It is very important that your doctors agree that you cannot work, and will not(or have not) been able to work for over a year.
To make your case, you need to see the appropriate doctors regularly and have records that prove that your condition does what you say it does and that it is severe and consistent enough to keep substantial work(earning over $1180 in 2018) off the table for you.
You can and should also keep records yourself of things appropriate to your condition, such as a pain diary if you are managing chronic pain, or a food diary if you are experiencing eating, absorption, or digestive issues(this may involve a record of incontinence, diarrhea, vomiting/nausea or constipation issues as well if that is part of your argument.)
The more work you can do to prove how your condition affects your day-to-day life, the more likely you are to be determined as eligible for the support program.
All of this logging I mentioned will also be very helpful for you and your doctors in determining the cause(if unknown) or severity of your particular case, so all of this logging can be useful for more than just your SSI application.
Your most important job is to record and manage your health and to seek out the correct treatment and care for your particular set of symptoms or condition.
Make sure you are seeing your doctor(s) regularly, and that they are the best ones you can see. If you need to see a specialist, do your best research to find the best one for your specific case.
It is important that they are covered by your insurance(hopefully you have some), but in some cases, it may be worth going out of network for a really good diagnostician or another specialist that you likely will only need to see once or twice.
Applying may be a tough decision, but if you need it and think you may be eligible, please do.
Conclusion: Can you get disability if you have never worked?
Yes, you can. The application itself is the same process as applying for SSDI, and you will still need to prove the nature of your disability and how it prevents you from working – which can be challenging if most of your jobs were off the books or if you have been minimally employed.
You need to focus in on your health and health history, and do everything in your power to quantify the details of your condition, and how it prevents you from working or supporting yourself.
I know that you can determine your next steps.
If you do apply for SSI, or have applied for SSI, I would love to hear about your experiences or any questions or suggestions you may have!