What Are Social Security Benefits?

social security benefits


Social Security is a huge program with a lot of complicated elements. For the people who receive Social Security benefits, the program can be literally life-saving — but not everyone who wants benefits receives them. It’s up to the Social Security Administration to determine each applicant’s eligibility.

Benefits Basics

"Benefits" is the word the SSA uses to describe regular payments, which are distributed to people who can’t work and therefore can’t support themselves. In 2016, more than 60 million Americans received benefits.

Applying for and receiving benefits from the Social Security Administration can be a complicated and drawn-out process. Who receives benefits and how much they receive depends on a lot of factors, like how long a person has worked. The SSA provides online calculators you can use to estimate future benefits.


One important distinction to make is the difference between Social Security Disability Benefits (SSDI) and Supplemental Security Income (SSI).

  • SSDI benefits are available for workers who are insured, meaning they’ve spent adequate time working and paying into the Social Security system (in the form of Social Security taxes). The required work period varies based on age. SSDI payments for today’s beneficiaries come out of the same fund that today’s workers pay into.
  • SSI benefits are funded by the U.S. Treasury, so it’s not necessary to prove a work history to receive them. These benefits are paid to people who are disabled, blind or 65 and older who have limited income. It’s possible to receive both SSDI and SSI benefits.

Who Receives Benefits?

To receive Social Security benefits, you must fit into one of three categories.

  • Retirement benefits are paid to retired workers and their families. They represent the majority of Americans who receive benefits. Workers who have paid into the Social Security system are eligible to receive monthly payments once they reach retirement age (currently 66 or 67, depending on the year of birth).
  • Survivors benefits are paid to the widow/er, children and sometimes parents of a worker who dies, if the survivors meet certain qualifications.
  • Disability benefits are paid to people who have worked and paid into the Social System, but who have become too disabled to work for a period of at least one year.

Social Security Retiree

Determining Disability Eligibility

Applying for and receiving disability benefits is made complicated by the fact that every situation is different, and the SSA requires a great deal of supporting information to prove disability. Assuming you can sufficiently prove that you have a medical condition, the type of condition affects whether the SSA will automatically approve your application or whether staff will make a ruling on your eligibility.

Automatic Qualification

The SSA uses a Listings of Impairments (formerly called the "blue book," as it was once published with a blue cover) to determine whether a person’s disability is severe enough for them to receive benefits. The listings are divided into two sections for adults and children, which are then divided by condition types such as respiratory disorders and neurological disorders. Each listing also includes a section for mental disorders.

Each condition or disorder included in the listings specifies the criteria that an afflicted person must meet in order to be eligible for benefits. If you have one of the specified conditions and meet the listed criteria, you’ll still be asked to provide extensive health records proving your case.

Case-by-Case Qualification

If you believe you’re disabled but don’t have one of the medical conditions in the listings of impairments, you can still apply for benefits. SSA staff will then decide if your condition is as severe as those including in the listings, and therefore whether you’re eligible to receive benefits.

Need help determining your eligibility for benefits? Visit your local Social Security office for more information.


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