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To be eligible for disability benefits, a person must be unable to engage in what Social Security refers to as "Substantial Gainful Activity" (SGA).

In determining whether you can do any Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA), Social Security will consider your age, education, work experience and "residual functional capacity"


An employee who is earning more than a certain monthly amount is ordinarily considered to be engaging in substantial work. Earned amounts are calculated after deduction for impairment-related work expenses (IRWE)

The amount of monthly earnings considered as SGA depends on the nature of a person's disability. In 2016, the general threshold is $1,130 per month. There is a higher SGA amount for statutorily blind individuals. In 2016, SGA for blind individuals is $1,820 per month. NOTE: It is possible that you may still be considered to have engaged in Substantial Gainful Activity even if you earned less than these amounts.

Self Employed People

The treshold for people who are self employed is the same dollar amount as for employees. However, if a person earns less than the dollar amount, there may still be Substantial Gainful Activity for Social Security purposes if other criteria are met.

For more information, see:

What Expenses Can Be Used To Reduce Earnings For Purposes of Substantial Gainful Activity?

If you are an employee, Social Security does not count the following in determining your income:

  • Expenses to get you to, and keep you in, the work place. To learn more, see IRWE.
  • If you are being overpaid for the work you do, the overpayment is referred to as a "subsidy." The amount by which your earnings are being subsidized is not counted. To learn more, see Subsidized Earnings.
  • Money you put into a PASS account isn't counted. To learn more, see PASS Accounts.

If you are self-employed, business expenses can be deducted. To learn more, see Self Employed.

What is Work For Purposes Of Substantial Gainful Activity?

For purposes of determining whether there is "Substantial Gainful Activity" (SGA) within Social Security's definition, work is defined as an activity that involves performing significant and productive physical or mental duties.

The question of whether an activity is work generally comes up when determining whether your health condition prevents you from performing "substantial gainful activities." Generally, any SGA requires you to be able to:

  • Walk, stand, sit, lift, push, pull, reach, carry or handle
  • See, hear, and speak
  • Understand, carry out, and remember simple instructions
  • Use your own judgment
  • Respond to supervision, co-workers and usual work situations
  • Deal with changes in a routine work setting

What Income Counts As Earnings For Purposes Of Substantial Gainful Activity?


  • Includes:
    • Income directly related to your work.
    • Gross income before payroll deductions.
    • Sick and vacation pay earned during the subject period, even if you didn't use it during the time period.
    • Cafeteria Plans: If you participate in a cafeteria plan at work (see Cafeteria Plans), any income set aside pre-tax, or used to purchase pre-tax benefits should be added to the gross income.
    • Bonus and incentive payments: When evaluating bonus/incentive payments, Social Security only considers those payments that represent your own productivity. Social Security will determine if the bonus/incentive payment represents a specific period of time. If it does, Social Security will distribute the earnings over the period of time it was earned. If the amount does not represent a specific period of work activity, or a specific time period is not determinable, Social Security will distribute the payment(s) monthly over the time period you worked for the employer, up to but not exceeding a year.
    • Royalty and Similar Payments: If you receive royalties or similar payments for activities performed in the past, the key for Social Security is to look at when the income was earned. For example: Mr. A was a painter all his life and his art work was sold at various art shows and galleries. Mr. A filed for disability benefits when the arthritis in his hands made it impossible for him to hold a paint brush and therefore unable to paint. He continues to receive royalties for his art work but since the payments represent work activity performed in the past, the income is considered earned for SGA purposes when the work activity occurred.

  • Does not include:
    • Income from dividends, savings accounts etc.
    • Your assets.
    • Your spouse's income or assets.

Income can be reduced to determine "countable" income by deducting Impairment Related Work Expenses and Subsidized Earnings. For more information, See IRWE and Subsidized Earnings.

If Your Earnings Are Below The Limits You Could Still Be Engaged In Substantial Gainful Activity

For people who are employees

 If your earnings are between $700 and $1,000 a month in 2010, Social Security may review your case, considering the time, energy, skill, and responsibility involved in the work you're doing, to determine whether it is comparable to that of non-disabled people in your area. If the work is deemed to be comparable, Social Security may consider you as having performed "substantial" work in that month, despite the fact the earnings aren't over $1,000 a month. However, as a practical matter, this rarely occurs except in the case of people who are self-employed.  

For people who are self-employed

Social Security examines the time and effort expended working in addition to the amount of earnings. For instance, if earnings in 2010 do not exceed $1,000 per month ($1,640 per month if you are blind), a self-employed person may still be considered to have performed "substantial work" if you spent more than 80 hours per month working.

As Social Security puts it:

"If you are self-employed and your disability is not blindness, the way we evaluate your work activity for SGA purposes will depend on whether the work activity being evaluated occurs before or after you have received SSDI benefits for 24 months and the purpose of the evaluation. We will apply either the Three Tests or the Countable Income Test to determine if your work activity is SGA, depending on when you work.

The Three Tests:
We apply the three tests to evaluate your work activity when you initially apply for SSDI and prior to your receiving SSDI benefits for 24 months. We will also use the three tests to evaluate your work activity during the re-entitlement period to determine if benefits can be reinstated in the extended period of eligibility after we have already determined your disability has ended due to SGA work activity. Your self-employment work activity is SGA if:

  • You render significant services to the business, and you had over the SGA level ($1000 in 2010) average monthly income; or
  • Your work is comparable to the work of persons without disability in your community engaged in the same or similar businesses; or
  • Your average monthly work is worth the SGA level earnings in terms of its effects on the business or when compared to what you would have to pay an employee to do the work.

The Countable Income Test:
We will apply the countable income test if you have been entitled to and received SSDI benefits for at least 24 months. We will only use the countable income test to determine whether you have engaged in SGA and if your disability has ended as a result of that SGA.

We will compare your countable earnings to the SGA earnings guidelines. If your monthly countable earnings average more than $1000 (in 2010), we will determine that you have engaged in SGA unless there is evidence you are not rendering significant services in the month. If your monthly countable earnings average less than $1000, we will not consider you to have engaged in SGA.

If you are self-employed and your disability is blindness, we decide SGA based on whether you have received a substantial income from the business and rendered significant services to the business. We make this determination using your countable earnings. We also use your countable earnings to determine whether you have engaged in SGA and whether payments can be reinstated during the Extended Period of Eligibility offsite link.

If you are self-employed, your disability is blindness, and you are age 55 or older, special rules apply. If your earnings demonstrate SGA but your work requires a lower level of skill and ability than the work you did before age 55, or when you became blind, whichever is later, we will suspend, not terminate, your benefits. Your eligibility for SSDI benefits continues indefinitely, and we pay your benefits for any months earnings fall below SGA."