Paper Social Security Checks Still Out There

October 7, 2020 Updated: October 12, 2020

President Donald Trump’s ongoing battle with the U.S. Postal Service and its funding has a small fraction of elderly Social Security recipients worried that there may be future disruptions to the delivery of their Social Security checks.

“Wait a minute!” I can hear many of you saying. “What do you mean by ‘delivery’ of their checks. Doesn’t everybody get their Social Security benefits by direct deposit nowadays?” Well, actually, no. And therein lies a story.

Direct deposit and other forms of electronic banking are so commonplace today that most of us hardly give the process a second thought. But more than a few of us are old enough to remember a time when all of this was a “new fangled technology” that we were not entirely sure we could trust.

I think back to my early days working for the Social Security Administration. Like all federal employees, we got a paycheck every two weeks. And for the first dozen or so years of my career, it was indeed a paycheck in the form of a paper check.

It was back in the very early 1980s that the SSA finally got around to sending our bimonthly salary to us via direct deposit. And I clearly remember more than a little anxiety when that happened. I was working in the local Social Security office in Boise, Idaho, at the time. On payday, a couple of my co-workers and I used to enjoy our twice-monthly stroll to the local bank. (That was primarily because the Boise Ballet Co., with huge street-side windows, was right next to the bank. After depositing our checks in the bank, we would go next door and stare through those big windows at the beautiful ballerinas like little boys with their noses pressed against the glass front of a candy store! Gosh, I loved going to cash my paycheck! But I digress!)

Anyway, this direct deposit stuff was new. And for the first couple of months after it started, I would very carefully check my bank account every two weeks to make sure that the mysterious process worked and my money really was there. Of course, over time, I (and millions of other people) learned that direct deposit was reliable and dependable.

Fast-forward a number of years later and the SSA, working with the Treasury Department, decided that all new Social Security claimants would be required to use direct deposit. And at the same time, they offered a direct deposit option to all existing Social Security beneficiaries.

So, why didn’t they force it on everybody? After all, it’s simple and efficient. And it saves money. It costs almost nothing to push a button and have your money deposited into your bank account. But all the costs involved in printing, handling, and mailing a paper check come out to about 50 cents each. Multiply that by millions of Social Security beneficiaries and you can see why the government was encouraging direct deposit.

But one of the main reasons why direct deposit wasn’t forced on everyone was that studies showed there was a hardcore group of people out there, mostly very old senior citizens, who just didn’t trust the process. They either didn’t like banks or they just were not comfortable with the idea of electronic money. They liked to see and feel that paper Social Security check in their hands every month.

You can still find some of these people. I do—every time I go to the grocery store. It always seems that I get stuck in the checkout line where there is a little old lady in front of me who is writing a check for her groceries. I mean, come on! Who writes checks for groceries anymore?

The point is those hardcore traditionalists are out there. That’s why they made direct deposit optional for existing Social Security beneficiaries. And thousands of old folks opted for the old fashioned “snail mail” delivery of their Social Security checks. Even today, there are still about 500,000 people who get paper checks. That sounds like a lot. But it is less than 1 percent of Social Security’s beneficiary base of 61 million recipients.

Still, there are a half-million pieces of U.S. Treasury Department paper going out in the mail every month to all these people. And as I said at the beginning, these folks are starting to worry that political problems at the postal service could lead to punctuality problems with their Social Security checks.

So, if you have a little old grandma out there who still gets a paper check, talk to her about the joys of electronic fund transfers and the ease of online banking. Oh, and also tell her to stop writing checks and start using a bankcard to pay for her groceries!

On a related note, here’s a message to the guy who sends me emails all the time telling me to stop referring to Social Security payments as “checks.” For example, I might tell someone, “You will get your first Social Security check in October.”

Whenever I do that, he fires off an email to me yelling at me for using the word “check.” He’ll say something like: “People don’t get checks. They get electronic payments sent to their bank account.”

Initially, I replied saying that I really didn’t mean to say “check” as in an actual paper check. And after a few more email exchanges, I started replying with a message along these lines: “C’mon, buddy, get real. When I tell someone they will be getting a Social Security check next month, they totally understand that I do not mean they will get a paper check in the mail. They know I mean they will get their benefits deposited into their bank account.”

But his emails keep coming. So, here is my new message: “Hey, pal, enough already. From now on, when I say your Social Security ‘check,’ let’s just make believe I’m talking to one of the 500,000 oldsters out there who actually get a paper check.”

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 thomas.margenau@comcast.net.