Facts and Tips About Public Benefits

California State Disability Insurance (SDI)

SDI is a short-term financial assistance program for the disabled. You may collect benefits for up to one year. This is an entitlement program which means you must have worked in California and paid into SDI through payroll taxes in order to collect. Contributions must be recent and you must be attached to the labor force (working, or looking for work) when you become disabled. You should apply within 49 days of leaving the work force, or be prepared to explain your delay. Self-employed individuals may pay into SDI's "elective coverage" program. Weekly awards range from $50 to $885. Awards are based on the highest quarter of pay-in during the four fiscal quarters prior to the most recent two (go back six months, look for highest quarter in the previous 12 months). SDI's award calendar moves forward every fiscal quarter. You may work part-time because of your disability and still collect some SDI to make up for lost wages. SDI applications are available at most doctors' offices, medical centers, and AIDS service organizations. There is a seven-day mandatory wait period. Payment should begin 10 to 14 days after you mail the application.

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI, Title 2)

SSDI is federal long-term disability insurance. It is an entitlement program; you must have paid into Social Security through F.I.C.A. payroll taxes in order to collect your Social Security Disability. Awards vary from $1 to about $1800 (2009) per month, and are based on work history and the amount of F.I.C.A. paid. To qualify, you must meet Social Security's definition of "disabled," meaning your disability will keep you from doing any kind of work at all for up to one year. There is a five-month waiting period before payment begins. You may backdate your claim as far back as your medical records substantiate disability. You may collect SSDI and State Disability together. After two years on SSDI payments you will receive Medicare automatically (except for the lack of out-patient prescriptions, Medicare coverage is considered good health insurance). Application processing time ranges from two to three months. Applications for SSDI should be made at local Social Security offices.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI, Title 16)

A long-term financial assistance program administered by Social Security for disabled people with limited or no income. Assets are restricted to under $2,000, excluding one car and one residence. Assets include cash, checking and savings accounts, stocks, bonds, pension plans, the cash value of life or burial insurance plans, real estate, or anything else of value. SSI currently pays up to $870 (2009) per month in California and automatically includes Medi-Cal (Medicaid). Total income cannot exceed the SSI maximum payment. Application time is two to three months. People with severe HIV-symptomatic or AIDS diagnoses (based on infections) may qualify for "presumptive eligibility." With medical documentation, this means Social Security may award you up to six months of "presumptive" payments while your claim is being processed. Some Social Security offices can make the first payment immediately upon application if your documentation is in order.


Medi-Cal is public health insurance for the disabled and those with low income. It's called Medicaid in most states. Resource and income limitations are identical to SSI. Applicants with income over the SSI level, however, may still qualify for "share of cost" Medi-Cal. Medi-Cal covers a broad range of services: doctor/dentist visits, X-rays, lab tests, prescription drugs, eye care, chiropractic services, hospitalization and some skilled nursing and home care. Medi-Cal is accepted by all county clinics and hospitals and a few private clinics and physicians. Application can be made at County Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) offices, and takes one to three months to process. People who qualify for SSI will automatically get Medi-Cal. "Presumptive" Medi-Cal is identical to "presumptive" SSI and takes five to 10 days.

Health Insurance Premium Payments

If you are Medi-Cal eligible, you may qualify for the Health Insurance Premium Payment program, to pay private health insurance premiums. Disabled people who are on SDI or who are not quite Medi-Cal eligible may qualify for another state program, CARE/HIPP, which can pay for insurance premiums until Medi-Cal or Medicare is obtained.

General Relief (GR)

Financial assistance for people who do not meet Social Security's disability criteria, with extremely limited incomes. Financial assets cannot exceed $50 at the time of application. Car value is limited to $4,650; home value to $34,000. You can earn up to $611 per month and still receive some GR. Monthly grant is $221 a month. Application should be made at local DPSS offices and takes approximately 30 to 45 days. GR is a state/federal grant which must be paid back. If you are not disabled, you will be assigned to a maximum of six days work per month. If you are disabled, some of the GR you receive would be deducted from SSI awards (usually only those months between SSI application and award). You must bring proof of disability with you upon application or be assigned to a work program. GR recipients may also collect Food Stamps.

Food Stamps

Federal and state program for low-income individuals and households. The maximum award for a single individual is $162 a month. Gross monthly income for single individuals cannot exceed $1107. Assets must be under $2,000; car value is unlimited for disabled individuals, $4,650 for others. Awards vary with the number in a household. Application time is 30 to 45 days. Emergency cases may get Food Stamps immediately. Applications should be made at local DPSS offices. Food stamps may be used at any grocery store, but not for tobacco, alcohol, pet food, ready-to-eat food or cleaning products. SSI recipients in California receive a food supplement as part of their award and are not eligible for Food Stamps.

Cal Works

Federal and state financial aid for low income families. There must be at least one child under 19 in the family. One parent must be absent from the home or unable to work for at least 30 days. Financial assets must be under $2,000 upon application; car value cannot exceed $4,650. Recipients may qualify for Food Stamps and Medi-Cal. Apply at local DPSS offices.

In-Home Supportive Services (IHSS)

A state program providing non-medical assistance for disabled people unable to care for themselves. IHSS provides money to hire in-home assistance for personal care (dressing, feeding, bathing, etc.) and domestic care (cleaning, food preparation). Financial limits are identical to SSI. IHSS recipients qualify for Medi-Cal. Amount of hours awarded is determined by an in-home assessment. Application is made through local IHSS offices and takes approximately 30 days.

Public Benefits Available to Undocumented Individuals

The following public benefits are exempt from the 8/22/96 "welfare reform" laws and are available to all individuals and/or families regardless of their immigration status:

  • Restricted "emergency" Medi-Cal
  • Medical and public health services, including county funded hospitals, HIV and mental health clinics.
  • AIDS Drug Assistance Program (ADAP)
  • Testing and treatment of communicable diseases (county tuberculosis clinics)
  • Immunization programs
  • Homeless shelters
  • Violence prevention programs
  • Nutrition programs (WIC, school lunch programs, soup kitchens and food banks)