Social Security: A Family’s Struggle

There has been discussion about Social Security in the media for a while – the Republicans want to either raise the retirement age or reduce the growth of benefits, while Clinton and Sanders on the Democratic side want to enhance and expand the program. When people are talking about it these days, it wouldn’t be unfair to say they’re focusing on the future of Social Security, or sometimes reminiscing about how impressive it was that such a socialist program got passed under FDR. Rarely, however, do people look at it as it is today. Sure, they worry about what will happen at future point X or time Y, but the general consensus now, and even Bernie Sanders’ website says this, is that the system is working as it should. In my experience, this has not been the truth.

Due to a stroke that he had in February 2014, my father has been on disability. Because he will only be turning 59 this year, he will be unable to collect his full Social Security benefits until he is 62. What he can collect instead is Social Security disability. This form of payment occurs in situations where someone has become disabled and can no longer work, even before they reach 62.

My father, knowing this, applied. He was accepted by Social Security in December, and in the meantime had gone through several examinations, including extensive written forms discussing his side effects and psychological analysis. (With his side effects being a jumbled short term memory and recurring headaches, these didn’t help.)

Sanders SS
Photo courtesy of the AFGE.

For my father, this meant that December should’ve been the first month he got a Social Security check. Up until this point, he was collecting disability through insurance, in an agreement where he’d be paid a reduced amount every month until he was accepted for Social Security disability. Once this happened, the insurance was reimbursed the money they paid by Social Security, while my father was promised the rest of what he would’ve been paid had he been on Social Security disability all along. This means not only was he expected to get a regular monthly payment, but he was also waiting for about $10,000 more as a form of back-pay. This also meant that if somehow Social Security didn’t come through, the insurance would not come back to keep paying until everything was set right.

No check came in December, so he called in the very beginning of January to ask why. Up until this point, the situation was a sure thing in our eyes. He was accepted, thus he should’ve gotten a check. Instead, our bills were piling at a rate my mother’s full-time paycheck, all of our savings, and my attempts at getting money as an unemployed full-time student couldn’t keep up with.

On the phone, however, my father was suddenly told about a new step we had to take. A member of the immediate family, either my mom or myself, had to accept the money for him. With my mom working a job that would rather her not take off if she can help it, I volunteered to put the money in my name. From how vague the person over the phone was, the reason for this seemed to be because they did not think he was trustworthy or stable enough to handle the money.

Photo courtesy of the AFGE.

Why would this be? No clear answer was given – but we guessed that it might’ve been because of the short term memory impairment, which didn’t mean he forget to walk our dog, or pay the bills, or anything like that – he just has a hard time remembering verbal instructions, and might forget to mention that someone called earlier. He could still be independent, if a little forgetful. We put as much down on the forms, and were told at no point that this could be an issue.

I signed the papers in the beginning of January. We were assured that we’d be getting the back-pay and the monthly check that month, within a couple weeks. We waited those weeks. Then we called again and were assured that it’d be there at the end of the week. It wasn’t, and we were told to wait a little longer and to definitely check back if it hadn’t arrived by Feb. 1.

Meanwhile, we were scrambling to make sure we had enough money to pay the essentials. Water and electricity were always paid, as was the internet, but anything else short of groceries had to wait. We were starting to sell some of our things to make sure we had enough.

The first of February came and went. My father called again, and he was suddenly informed that he was one of the unlucky few whose checks got lost in the computer system due to some sort of error. Suddenly, we were being told that we might not see anything until the beginning of March.

SS 2
Photo courtesy of Alexander Rabb.

We were also told that the person who was supposed to input his information into the system left Social Security. The work was being reassigned. Now, this is only speculation, but we could surmise the reason for this was due to severe budget cutbacks affecting all government programs in Illinois. Gov. Bruce Rauner and the legislature have been in an ongoing battle, which has prevented a budget from being passed in the state for nearly a year. They can’t even send reminders anymore for people to get their car emissions tested.

Frustrated, my father and I drove over to the Social Security office the next day, were the first ones in line through the door, and pleaded our case. We needed something. You can only tell so many creditors so many times to extend a bill’s due date because the federal government owes you, for so long.

The kind lady at the office gave us a different explanation for what happened – the system where my father’s file was, was “stuck” and not showing that he should be paid, despite everything checking out. Then, she disappeared for a while, over twenty minutes, and when she returned, she told us she talked with her boss and we would be getting that week – she promised – a check for about half of what he was owed to tide us over until this problem could be fixed. This was something.

Photo courtesy of the AFGE.

The check actually came, and on time. It was a shock to us all. Bills finally got paid. For now, everything is looking okay, but that March date we were given is still up to date as far as we all know. If this issue, whatever it is, doesn’t clear up by then, we’re going to be back in the same situation.

The real surprising thing about this whole situation is that unlike food stamps, welfare, or any other public program, Social Security, even disability, is not an entitlement program – a “hand out.” This is money my father already earned. Suddenly, for whatever reason, he was deemed not trustworthy enough to handle his own money, just as sudden as it was when we found out he was going to need it in the first place.

What does this have to do with the state of Social Security today? Simple – if this is happening to my father, it’s no doubt happening to other people. Glitch or not, there is some lack of communication going on. It may be that another form needs to be filled out or an extra step that needs to be taken. My father earned his money and expected it to be in his name; having that turn out to not be the case is, as far as we know, unheard of.

Photo courtesy of Bernard Pollack.

It’s all well and good to talk about Social Security – we absolutely need it – and to also marvel at its historical value. But to pretend that everything is a well-oiled machine right now, as many politicians are, is to ignore the idea that even a system that is so great now always needs to evolve.

To address it only in future terms is to ignore the present and to, in a sense, not talk about it at all. Social Security is not some far off ideal we can debate back and forth like single payer healthcare; it is a reality right now, and if there are families out there that are suffering because they’re waiting on that check, that needs to change. People have been promised that money and they paid for it; it’s only right they get it.

Lastly, if this has anything to do with the ongoing budget crisis in Illinois, then it’s imperative that a budget get passed and our Governor finally learn to compromise. Not tomorrow, but today.

Featured photo courtesy of the FDR Presidential Library (53-227(18)

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