Social Security is supposed to be a catch-all financial safety net for retirees and Americans unable to work because of physical or mental disabilities, right? Talk about a misnomer! The truth is there is NOTHING “social” about the service (or lack thereof). “Social” suggests a warm, friendly atmosphere with caring, helpful people. “Security” conjures up images of protection and safety. Conceived by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1936, Social Security was a great idea. But sometime between 1936 and 2014, Social Security took a few wrong turns and became an oxymoron.
Our initial visit to the Social Security office seeking disability payments for our daughter, Sarah, (on the autistic spectrum) had been a nightmare montage of endless waiting under infuriating conditions, (see “Social Insecurity,” 9/27/12). After that, I figured we had at least a few years to recover before returning for a “review” session. However, after Henry’s 66th birthday on July 7th, he decided to apply for retirement because he learned that our disabled daughter might be able to collect half of his benefits. That’s DOUBLE what she currently receives –a HUGE difference for our daughter.
Was Social Security going to come through for Sarah? Maybe FDR’s institution would last just long enough to offer our daughter some security? Will someone please pass the smelling salts?
Henry was told that he didn’t even have to apply in person. Instead, he could apply for his-and-hers benefits by scheduling a conference call. Better yet, Sarah might not need to be present. Sound too good to be true? You betcha! I was not the least bit surprised when the Social Security representative called our home and asked to speak on the phone with Sarah only, minus any pesky help from her lawyer father or (Wolf Mom) me. Leaving our daughter to be interviewed alone over the phone was out of the question, and so another in-person appointment at the Social Security office would have to be endured.
To begin with, when I made the appointment with Social Security, they gave me the wrong address! Yes, that’s right: Social Security directed me to 230 West 48th Street, instead of 237 West 48th Street, where the office is actually located. You may be wondering how that’s possible. However, I assure you that Henry and I were misdirected by Social Security personnel, not once but twice. I can only guess they were hoping that we (and everyone else) would get lost and eventually give up. For the record, there is NO building at 230 West 48th Street. It simply doesn’t exist. This fictional address might be amusing if you were watching a Steve Martin and Goldie Hawn get stranded in the remake of "The Out of Towners." But as New York City natives, wandering up and down Broadway (wondering if we’d lost our minds), there was nothing funny about our situation. Especially since we were already worried about providing for our disabled child, and in so doing, we were starting to face our own mortality.
Eventually, a random stranger provided me with the correct address, but bad news was already waiting when Sarah and I finally arrived at the 5th floor office of Social Security, where we found Henry seated and doing legal work
“It’s going to be a very long wait.” He informed us, looking up from his papers with a sigh.
“How do you know?” I plopped into one of the hundred plastic chairs, noticing that an alarming number of them were filled. “Don’t we have an 11 AM appointment? Aren’t we in the computer?”
“I checked in at 10:30, but the receptionist didn’t give me a number this time,” Henry replied. "I asked the supervisor, and he said they would call Sarah’s name. But he warned me that won’t happen for a long time.”
“How long?” Last time, when we had an 11 AM appointment, we never ate lunch and didn’t leave Social Security until after closing time at 3:15 PM. While starving, I’d read two old newspapers, even finishing the puzzles, and had plenty of time left over to feel my stomach digesting itself. This time I’d brought a book, (but not lunch.) I was beginning to panic. Was it possible that Sarah and I would be forced to miss an important doctor’s appointment scheduled for 3 PM?
“Probably we’ll be here for hours. The supervisor asked me to let him know if we decided not to wait, so he could cross us off the list.” Howard’s voice had the tone of an attorney, accustomed to long waits in courtrooms at inconvenient times and in uncomfortable chairs.
As my husband returned to his legal work, an elderly Chinese man entered the waiting room. He hobbled up to the receptionist and began asking questions in Chinglish.
Unfortunately, the receptionist was disabled and had a speech impediment. The Chinese man spoke very little English. Intelligent or useful communication was impossible. In desperation, the Chinese man approached an Asian woman, who was also waiting for her appointment, and asked if she spoke Chinese.
“Sorry, I’m Korean,” she replied, embarrassed.
Undaunted, the Chinese man turned to the armed guard, sitting at a desk. “Men room?”
The guard held out a key, and he shuffled off to the one men’s bathroom which was occupied.
“Key-no-work. Need bafrum,” he told the guard.
“The key works, but someone’s in there. You need to wait.”
For a moment, the elderly man looked like a flustered five year-old who’d waited too long for a toilet. I was afraid he might pee on the floor, but instead he sat down with the air of someone used to long waits.
By 12:30 PM, my patience had run out. Henry was calmly reading and underlining a legal document; Sarah was resting her head on my shoulder, half asleep. My stomach was growling, and I was tired of sitting (and sweating) in a plastic chair. “I’m going to check with the receptionist.”
“Good luck getting ANY information from HER.” Henry chuckled.
“Please-sit-down-someone-will-be-with-you-soon.” The receptionist chanted in a mechanical tone like a recorded announcement.
“How soon?” My voice rose. “You said the same thing 45 minutes ago.”
She shifted in her chair uncomfortably. “You’re next. Please-sit-down and—”
“I’m NOT sitting down until YOU or SOMEBODY gives me some information,” I exploded. A micro second later, I glanced over my shoulder to make sure the armed security guard hadn’t reached for his gun.
“The representatives are all out to lunch now.” The receptionist shrugged.
Everybody here is ALWAYS out to lunch… I thought. “When do they return?” I said out loud.
“They should be back at 12:45 PM.”
Finally, at 1:15 PM, Sarah, Henry and I were ushered beyond the locked doors and plexiglass windows to a metal desk where a very kind young woman named Ms. Bonilla apologized for the wait. We sat in office chairs while she tapped at her computer to bring up Sarah’s information. The good news was that we’d applied for Sarah’s Social Security while she was still 22. That meant we didn’t have to fill out new papers, repeat her life history, or send in medical reports again. The bad news was that we needed Sarah’s original birth certificate to establish Henry’s paternity (and her entitlement) to benefits. Assuming Henry could locate the original (a copy was unacceptable), someone would have to bring the birth certificate to Ms. Bonilla on Monday and wait for her to make a copy. Why had no one instructed us to bring this all-important document to our meeting? Probably for the same reason we had been given the wrong street address.
Social Security, like most insurance companies, makes it as difficult as possible for people to collect money. In their defense, fraud is rampant. Plenty of healthy people who are capable of working cheat the system and collect disability payments. Recently, a“60 Minutes” segment exposed attorneys who have been enriching themselves by helping healthy clients do the necessary paperwork to receive undeserved disability payments. Flagrant examples of cheaters who have been caught include a “disabled” man on jet skis and another guy hauling an enormous sailfish into his boat.
It’s no wonder that Social Security is scheduled to go bankrupt in 2033. Medicare will be exhausted even sooner—in 2026, according to a “Government Programs” article on Google. Those dates are approaching faster than most people think: 10,000 baby boomers reach retirement age and qualify for Social Security benefits every day. As usual, Washington has been unable to reach an agreement to strengthen the finances of our government’s biggest entitlement programs, which added up to about 38% of federal spending last year. Meanwhile, Obama has already offered to break his 2008 re-election campaign pledge not to cut Social Security Benefits. In negotiations with GOP leaders, Obama has agreed to adopt a new measure of inflation that would give Social Security recipients smaller cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs). For an average 85 year old man, that would mean a $1000 reduction in Social Security benefits.
What do the proposed cuts mean for Henry, Sarah and the rest of us? I have yet to find out: not knowing is part of social insecurity...
As for our case, Henry located Sarah’s original birth certificate and delivered it to Ms. Bonilla with only a half hour wait. He recognized Ms. Bonilla’s supervisor and asked if he could bring her the birth certificate.
“That’s against Social Security protocol,” the supervisor replied. “Take a number and have a seat.”
But Ms. Bonilla had promised on Friday that she would not make Henry wait, and true to her word, Ms. Bonilla came out to take the birth certificate, copy it and return it to Henry.
Now all we have to do is wait for a decision. Will Sarah receive half of Henry’s benefits? Social Security is supposed to let us know in the next two months, but I’m not holding my breath.
Labels: 60 Minutes, autism, baby boomers, birth certificate, COLA, disabily payments, entitlement programs, Franklin Roosevelt, insurance companies, lawyers, medicare, New York City, Obama, retirement, social security