When it comes to Social Security disability benefits, there are several standards that an applicant must be able to meet in order to be considered disabled — for example, their symptoms must match those listed on the Social Security Administration’s website for that particular disability, and they must have earned a certain amount of work credits (if they are applying for Social Security Disability Insurance, or SSDI) or earn under a certain income (if they are applying for Supplemental Security Income, or SSI).
However, one of the more commonly overlooked requirements is the stipulation that people applying for benefits must not be able to engage in “substantial gainful activity” in order to be considered disabled and earn benefits. For the Social Security Administration, substantial gainful activity is work — meaning that if you are able to work past a certain degree, you won’t be eligible to receive benefits.
The amount you’re able to work is measured in a dollar amount: the sum of money that you would earn if you worked instead of receiving benefits. If this amount is above a certain limit, then the Social Security Administration will determine that your disability is not severe enough to hamper you from working and will not grant you benefits (unless your situation changes dramatically, like a worsening in your condition).
The substantial gainful activity limit is different depending on several factors: the year (and the national average wage index at that time), the disability (blind or non-blind) and the type of benefit (SSDI or SSI). The limit for statutorily blind individuals is higher than for non-blind individuals; furthermore, substantial gainful activity for non-blind individuals applies to both SSDI and SSI benefits, while the limits for blind individuals only apply to SSDI benefits. The formula that the federal government uses to calculate the limit for blind individuals applies only in years where there is a cost-of-living increase, which applies to 2018.
In 2018, blind individuals are considered to be engaging in substantial gainful activity if they are earning $1,970 or more per month, while for non-blind individuals, that amount is $1,180. These figures have been rising steadily since 2011, before which they stayed stagnant during the recession; the greatest increase over the past few years was from 2016 to 2017, in which the limit for blind individuals rose by $130 per month.
Many people who have been disabled want to return to work if they are able, but fear that they will lose their benefits even if they don’t end up making enough to earn a living. These people have an opportunity to work for a period of time while still earning benefits through the Social Security Administration’s trial work period, which provides an incentive to return to the work force without making it a huge risk for people on disability benefits.
The work that’s done during the trial period isn’t counted as proof that a disability has ended until the person has worked for a certain period of time — in the current regulations, at least nine months out of a 60-month period (they don’t have to be consecutive). A month of work performed is defined as a month where the person made $850 or more in 2018, a $10 per month increase from 2017. To calculate this monthly amount, the Social Security Administration uses the national average wage index to ensure that the figure is the most accurate for people who are working and trying to earn money after recovering from a disability.