I’ve pointed out many times how people are quick to gripe about the government in general and the services it provides in particular—when they don’t have the whole picture of what’s going on. For example, lately, I’ve been getting a lot of complaints about letters that people get from the Social Security Administration. And in most cases, their criticisms are unjustified. Here are some examples.
Q: When I get a letter from the SSA, those letters are always backdated. For example, I received a Social Security letter on Oct. 20 telling me I’ve supposedly been overpaid. But the letter was dated Oct. 24! If you ask me, this is incompetence and government deception at its worst!
A: Honestly, I just don’t get the mindset that causes people like you to assume the worst and make false accusations. Social Security letters are postdated for a very good reason, intended to help beneficiaries like you. Most of the time, when the SSA sends someone a letter, it is to announce a change in the letter recipient’s benefit amount. Or, as in your case, to tell you about an overpayment. And those letters always give you the legal right to file an appeal. If you read the letter you got, it says you have 60 days from the date of the letter to file that appeal. Before letters were postdated, people complained that about a week’s worth of that 60-day appeal period was already gone by the time they got the letter—accounting for the time it took to prepare and mail it. So, SSA officials decided to simply postdate the letters so that people would have the full 60-day period of time to prepare an appeal once the letter actually arrived in their mailbox. Again, they are trying to help you. They are not being incompetent or deceptive. Geez, buddy, chill out!
Q: I just got a check from Social Security for about $30 with no explanation. I was very confused. I called the SSA. They told me a letter will follow in a week or so. What’s wrong with that picture? That’s the government for you. They can’t do anything right!
A: As with so many people, I think you are too quick to criticize the government. Many years ago, I helped the SSA conduct focus groups with Social Security beneficiaries. We asked them this: “Let’s say the agency owes you some money. Would you rather get the money first? Or should we hold off giving you the money until you get a letter explaining it?” The focus group participants overwhelmingly answered, “Give us the money first!” So that’s what the SSA does. Actually, the money and a letter explaining the money go out on the same day. It’s just that a direct deposit transaction happens almost instantaneously. But, of course, it takes a while longer to prepare a letter and send it through the mail. So, despite your accusation that the government “can’t do anything right,” I hope you now understand that they did the right thing and asked the American people what they wanted. And then they gave them what they asked for.
Q: I used to get a letter every year from Social Security telling me how much my potential Social Security benefit would be. They were very useful. Then they stopped sending those letters. I guess that’s just another example of the government making a knucklehead decision.
A: Well, was it a “knucklehead decision”? Or just another example of the government trying to respond to the needs of the citizens?
Those letters, called the “Social Security Statement,” started going out once a year to all Americans over age 25 sometime in the 1980s. That statement primarily provided two important pieces of information. It gave you an up-to-date list of all the earnings posted to your record. And it gave you an estimate of your future Social Security benefits.
You were supposed to check that earnings statement to make sure all your earnings were properly posted. Why? Because your potential Social Security benefits are based on those earnings. And if you saw an error, you were instructed to contact the SSA to correct the problem.
And, of course, you were to use the data about your future Social Security benefits to make plans for your retirement.
I remember at the time thinking that these statements were one of the best services the SSA had ever come up with. But at some point, we did some kind of survey of statement recipients. And guess what we learned? Most people were simply throwing them away!
As you might guess, producing those statements and mailing them to almost every American was really quite expensive. And given the fact that many people just ignored them, especially younger people, SSA officials decided to save the taxpayers some money and change their policy on mailing Social Security statements. They are now sent out to all Americans over age 25 once every five years. But when you turn 60, they are sent to you annually, until you file for Social Security benefits. Also, you can request a statement anytime by going to SocialSecurity.gov.
One final side note about letters and the Social Security Administration. And this time, I’m talking about the reverse of what this column has been about. Are you thinking of sending a letter to the SSA to complain about something? Or to ask about something? Well, don’t. Those letters almost always get lost in the bureaucratic maze. Why? Because the SSA’s service provider network isn’t based on responding to letters. It is based on one-on-one personal service, either at your local Social Security office (once it reopens post-COVID-19), or at their toll-free hotline: 800-772-1213. Or even more efficiently at SocialSecurity.gov. So, don’t write the SSA a letter. Get in touch with them in person or online.
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.