I get hundreds of letters from my readers every week. And from them, I can glean a lot of insight into some facets of the American character. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that many Americans claim they want smaller government and fewer benefits from that government. But when I read their letters, what they are really saying is this: “I deserve the benefits I’m getting. In fact, I should get more. But THOSE PEOPLE over there sure don’t deserve anything!” I have space to fit two recent examples in today’s column.
Q: I am 83 years old, and I’m being cheated out of Social Security that I am rightfully due. I’ve been fuming about this for years. And now I’m even more upset because I have just returned from our church service and witnessed something that should shock all good Americans. I stood near enough to a couple and overheard them. The man was telling his wife something about not being able to make a car payment until he got his next Social Security check. What?? This guy was in his 50s! And I am sure they are living here illegally! What is he doing with a Social Security check? That’s what’s wrong with this country. People like me who worked hard all our lives can’t get the benefits we deserve, but illegal aliens walk into a Social Security office and get money handed to them like candy! Cut government spending in half and we wouldn’t have these problems!
A: Oh, my! I hardly know where to begin. Let me start with this obvious question. How in the world could you tell from just looking and listening to these people that they are living here illegally? My guess is it has something to do with skin pigmentation and dialect. But I’ll just leave it at that.
I can tell you that it is a very common misconception that undocumented workers in this country can collect Social Security checks. Simply put: They do not. You must be living in this country legally, and you must have worked and paid taxes for a minimum of 10 years to qualify for Social Security. Numerous studies have been done that show illegal immigration actually boosts Social Security’s bottom line. How? Because every year, those undocumented workers who somehow manage to get forged Social Security numbers and work “above the table” pump about $2 billion in taxes into the Social Security trust funds. And they never collect a dime in benefits.
So, why is this 50-year-old guy getting a Social Security check? Well, obviously, he must be getting disability benefits. And to repeat, he wouldn’t be getting those checks if he were living here illegally. Also, before you jump on another soapbox and tell me that anyone can get Social Security disability checks, I suggest you go back and read a column I wrote a couple of weeks ago in which I explained how difficult it is to qualify for those benefits. Anyone who truly knows the facts will tell you that, of all the disability programs in this country, Social Security is the most difficult one to qualify for, and it has the most stringent eligibility criteria.
In other words, it is extremely likely that this guy is getting the Social Security benefits he deserves. And by the same token, it is also extremely likely that you are getting the benefits that you deserve. You said you’ve “been fuming about (your benefit amount) for years.” But instead of fuming, did you ever do anything about it? If you thought you were being paid incorrectly, the time to do something about that was when your benefits first started. So, 20 or so years ago, you could have filed an appeal of your benefit calculation providing evidence of why you thought the amount was wrong.
I will bet my next Social Security check that you never did that. And I will bet my next two checks that the amount you are getting is entirely correct. So, I suggest you stop fuming, stop pointing fingers at your fellow churchgoers, and get on with your life.
Q: I’m a retired teacher. Because of an unfair law, I can’t get any spousal benefits on my husband’s Social Security record, even though he spent over 40 years paying taxes into this rip-off system. But I know women who haven’t worked a day in their lives, and they are getting their husband’s Social Security. My husband and I worked hard all our lives, and I deserve to get his benefits. These women who never earned a paycheck in their lives don’t deserve a dime. No wonder the government is so corrupt! Please write about this and help correct this injustice!
A: Well, I’m going to write about it. But I don’t think you will like what I have to say. The law you are talking about is called the “government pension offset,” or the GPO. And what this law does is make sure you are being treated in the same way all other Social Security beneficiaries have always been treated.
What you have to understand is that Social Security spousal benefits are “dependent” benefits. Just as breadwinners supported their dependent family members while they were working, it was felt that Social Security should support certain of those dependents (almost always a spouse) once the worker retires.
Let’s say Sam was working and his wife, Sally, was a stay-at-home mom most of their marriage. When Sam retires, he will get his Social Security check, and Sally will get a dependent spouse’s benefit on his record.
Next door to Sam and Sally, we have Frank and Fran. They both worked, and they both paid into Social Security. Frank will get his Social Security retirement check, and Fran will get her Social Security retirement check. Fran will not get any spousal benefits from Frank because her own Social Security benefit offsets any potential wives benefits she might be due. To put that another way, Sally can’t get spousal benefits because she was not Frank’s “dependent.”
Let’s say you and your husband are living next door to Frank and Fran. Your husband paid into Social Security and now gets a Social Security retirement check. You paid into a teacher’s pension system, and you get a teacher’s retirement check. Before the government pension offset law came along, you would have also been able to get a “dependent” spousal benefit from your husband’s Social Security—even though you were working, had your own income, and now have your own retirement pension. The GPO law merely says that your teacher’s retirement pension will offset any spousal benefits you might be due, just as Fran’s Social Security retirement pension offsets the spousal benefits she might normally be due.
Now, if you want to complain because you think stay-at-home women like Sally “don’t deserve a dime,” well, I’ll stay out of that argument. But I can tell you they are getting what the law says they are due, and it has nothing to do with a “corrupt government.”
Tom Margenau worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. He has served as the director of SSA’s public information office, the chief editor of more than 100 SSA publications, a deputy press officer and spokesman, and a speechwriter for the commissioner of Social Security. For 12 years, he also wrote Social Security columns for local newspapers. If you have a Social Security question, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.