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Security Security and You: Please stop confusing SSI with Social Security
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Social Security and You

Security Security and You: Please stop confusing SSI with Social Security

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I sometimes feel like I should spend the first half of the column explaining to readers that the Supplemental Security Income program is not Social Security. And then I should spend the second half of the column explaining that the Social Security program is not SSI. But I will bet my next pension check that, after writing that same column each week for a year, I will still get emails from readers who confuse the two government programs. Here are two examples from this week’s email inbox.

First email: “Both my wife and I are getting SSI. I want to know this: If we move from California to Texas, will our SSI checks continue in the same amount?”

Second email: “My mother is getting Social Security. She wants to move to Costa Rica where she thinks she will be able to live more cheaply. Can she get her Social Security checks in Costa Rica?”

I’m going to come back later and answer these questions. And given the subject of today’s column, I will give you a hint to unlocking the clue to the answers. Turns out the husband and wife who want to move from California to Texas are getting Social Security, not SSI. And the woman whose mother wants to move to Costa Rica is getting SSI, not Social Security.

But before I get to the answers, I’m going to explain the difference between Social Security and SSI — maybe for the one-thousandth time in this column!

Most people know what Social Security is. You work. You pay taxes. And then when you retire or become disabled, you start getting Social Security checks based on what you paid into the system. Or if you die, your widow, widower or minor children start getting monthly benefits — again, based on what you paid into Social Security during your working years.

And it is obvious to me that most people do not know what SSI is. Supplemental Security Income is a federal welfare program that pays a small monthly stipend to people who are 65 or older who are very poor; or to people who are under 65 but disabled who are very poor. How poor? Usually they have to have monthly income of less than about $730 per month to qualify for SSI payments.

Many people confuse SSI with Social Security for a variety of reasons. One is the name. Supplemental Security Income just sounds like some kind of supplemental Social Security program. It is not.

Another reason for the confusion is the fact that the Social Security Administration runs the SSI program for the federal government. But that is all they do. They manage the program. To repeat: SSI is not a Social Security benefit. And SSI payments are not paid for out of Social Security funds. The money for SSI comes out of the government’s general operating funds. In fact, Social Security’s trust funds are even reimbursed from the general funds for the costs of administering the SSI program.

And getting back to that name business. So many people think that SSI stands for Social Security income. In other words, when millions of people say, “I’m getting SSI,” they think they are saying, “I’m getting Social Security.” But when I hear you say, “I’m getting SSI,” or when a Social Security representative hears you say that, we think you are saying, “I’m getting Supplemental Security Income.”

So it’s not really just a matter of semantics. By phrasing a question using the wrong terminology, you are going to get a wrong answer.

And speaking of wrong answers, let’s get back to those two questions that came from readers that I mentioned near the beginning of this column.

When the couple who wanted to relocate from California to Texas wrote and asked if their SSI checks would change because of the move, I answered telling them that their benefits would very likely change. Because SSI is a welfare benefit, the payment amount depends on your living arrangements (whether or not you own a home, rent, share expenses with others, etc.). Also, the payment rate can change from one state to another. For example, California is a bit more generous with its SSI payments than is Texas. So I told the couple making the move to Texas that there was a pretty good chance their SSI benefits would go down when they headed to the Lone Star State.

Well, they later wrote back to tell me that when they checked with the Social Security people, they learned that their payment rates would stay the same. And surprise, surprise — that’s because they were not getting SSI, as they told me, but instead were getting Social Security benefits.

And it was the opposite story for the mother thinking of moving to Costa Rica. I initially told the daughter that her mother could move just about anywhere and still get Social Security checks. She later emailed me and told me that a local Social Security representative explained that her mother’s checks would stop if she left the country. Even though the daughter told me her mother was getting Social Security, she’s getting SSI. As I pointed out earlier in this column, SSI is a welfare benefit. And this country does not send welfare benefits overseas. So if mom leaves the United States, her SSI checks will stop immediately.

So please, dear readers, repeat after me: Social Security is not SSI, and SSI is not Social Security. If you use the wrong terms when asking questions, you’re going to get wrong answers.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. He worked for the Social Security Administration for 32 years before retiring in 2005, and for many years was national director of its public information office. Email questions to

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