Similar, but Distinct Programs

Federal programs that support income security and health are often mistakenly characterized interchangeably. From television pundits to average citizens, we often hear someone refer to Medicaid when they mean Medicare; Supplemental Security Income benefits are often confused with Social Security benefits. The programs, although similarly named, are distinct in terms of purpose, financing and specific populations served.

There is also a popular belief that individuals in this country illegally are eligible for these programs. In fact, illegal immigrants cannot qualify for any of these benefits. In order to qualify for benefits, individuals must be legally present in the U.S. , plus have either a significant connection to the workforce or military service. The following chart serves as a guide to the differences in these programs.


Funding Source

Eligibility Requirements

Number of Beneficiaries

Social Security

Self-financed via FICA taxes

Workers, who are insured for SS benefits and have attained age 62 or are disabled, and their dependents

60 million

Supplemental Security Income

General Revenues

Individuals who are aged, blind or disabled with little or no income or resources

8.4 million


Part A-Self-financed via FICA taxes

Part B and Part D- Monthly premiums and general revenues

Workers (including their dependents), who are insured for SS benefits, and have attained age 65 or received Social Security disability benefits for at least 2 years

56 million


General Revenues

Adults and children with little or no income or resources; requirements vary by state

72 million

Social Security pays monthly benefits to older workers who have paid sufficient FICA taxes to be insured for benefits. Workers must have attained aged 62. The program also pays benefits to workers’ dependents or survivors. Workers who become disabled before retirement age are eligible for benefits as well. There are currently 60 million beneficiaries receiving Social Security, most of whom are elderly.

Medicare offers health insurance to older workers who are insured for Social Security benefits and have attained age 65 and to disabled beneficiaries who have been receiving Social Security disability benefits for at least two years. Dependents and survivors over age 65 also receive health insurance under Medicare. Part A of Medicare, which covers hospital insurance, is financed through workers’ FICA taxes. Part B, which covers physician’s payments, and Part D, which provides prescription drug coverage, are financed through monthly premiums paid by beneficiaries and general revenues. Medicare serves a predominately elderly population of 46.3 million in addition to 9 million younger beneficiaries who receive Social Security disability benefits.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) provides a monthly income to low-income aged, blind or disabled individuals, and disabled children. Recipients must meet strict income and resource limits. The program is financed by general tax revenues. Approximately 8.4 million people receive SSI benefits.

Medicaid provides health insurance and long-term services and supports to low-income individuals. These programs are designed for a population with little or no income or resources, and are financed through general revenues (federal taxes). Eligibility requirements vary by state with regard to age, marital status, etc. Medicaid provides services to about 72 million people.