What Is Substantial Gainful Activity?

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  • Written By: Jim B.
  • Edited By: Rachel Catherine Allen
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  • Last Modified Date: 03 December 2019
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Substantial gainful activity is a term used to describe work that, if it can be performed, disqualifies a person from receiving disability benefits. In the United States, such activity is determined by the Social Security Administration (SSA,) which sets a monetary limit on the amount earned through work by people wishing to collect disability. Should the money earned by the individual in question exceed the predetermined limit, it would be considered substantial gainful activity and would negate any opportunity for disability benefits. The advantage of this system is that it provides a barrier against any individual attempting to defraud the government in a quest for disability payments.

In the United States, disability payments are given out by the SSA to help out those people who have a physical ailment preventing them from getting and maintaining regular employment. Since these people have no way of earning money through work, disability benefits help them cope with the financial necessities of life. As a result, there must be some assurance that these people are not capability of working, and substantial gainful activity is an important standard in the verification process.

There are two main qualifications which allow a person to receive disability benefits. First of all, it must be proven that they have some sort of disability making them physically or mentally incapable of working. Second, they must not have engaged in any substantial gainful activity.


The SSA defines a substantial gainful activity in two ways. Whatever work that the person in question does must include productive and significant duties. In addition, the money earned in a single year from the work done by this person must exceed a certain monetary limit. If both of these qualities exist, the SSA can determine that the person in question has the capability to support themselves with gainful employment. Should that be the case, any potential disability payments would be denied by the SSA.

It is important to realize that the monetary limits for determining a substantial gainful activity tend to change with each passing year. Money applied to the limit can also include money earned by a person who is self-employed. The main purpose of this standard is to prevent those people who are capable of working from hoarding disability payments that should rightfully go to those people who don't have the ability to work. Such fraud presents a burden for taxpayers and would be especially harmful if benefits were unavailable to those who truly need them.


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