I’ve been writing a book for years now. It’s not going to be a bestseller, and it only has to do with Social Security in a peripheral way. It’s a history of my life, my wife’s life, and our lives together (about 47 years so far). I’m writing this collection of stories for my children and grandchildren and for their children and grandchildren. Some of them, no doubt, will find it boring. But I’m sure that a few of my descendants somewhere down the road will be fascinated by it.
My wife and I have been amateur genealogists for years now. We can trace our families’ histories back for many centuries. And we can tell you from experience that any kind of written family history is an absolute treasure trove. Both my wife and I had uncles who wrote journals, and we’ve learned so much by reading what they wrote down many decades ago. And the stories in those journals can be so fascinating. For example, you would be absolutely mesmerized by my Uncle Gene’s recollections of his struggles as a Marine on Iwo Jima during World War II. (He was there when they raised the flag on Mount Suribachi. He just didn’t get in the iconic picture that became one of the most famous photographs of the 20th century.)
As a retired civil servant (and now a frumpy grandpa), I don’t have any earth-shaking stories like that to share. After all, I spent a good chunk of my life helping people fill out boring old government forms to file for Social Security benefits. Nobody ever took a picture of me doing that and tried to turn it into a statue or a postage stamp! But I did have interesting experiences and a little bit of fun along the way. And I thought I’d share a couple Social Security-related stories with you today.
I spent a good bit of my early Social Security Administration career as what the agency called a “field representative.” While the major SSA workforce sat at desks all day and took claims from people who came into a local Social Security office, field reps went out to remote locations and set up shop for a day, usually in a senior center or some other public building in these far-flung towns.
In the late 1970s, I was the field representative in the Everett, Washington, Social Security office. And our service area was interesting and varied. It ran from islands in the Puget Sound to little hamlets in the Cascade Mountains.
Once a week, I would get on a ferry just outside of Everett and take a trip over to Whidbey Island. There I would go to the senior center in Langley and open up my little mini Social Security office.
Inevitably, when I’d get to the senior center, there would already be 20 or 30 people waiting for me. Besides a healthy dose of senior citizens, many of my visitors were young parents (usually mothers) with little kids in tow. You may wonder what they were doing at a Social Security gathering. Well, they were there to get new Social Security numbers for youngsters, or replacement cards for themselves or older children.
I purposely point this out because I frequently get emails from older readers who complain that they went to a Social Security office and found the waiting room full of younger people. And they usually say something like this to me: “No wonder Social Security has problems. You’re handing out benefits to young people and even kids!” So if you go to a Social Security office and see lots of younger people, please understand that probably 90 percent of them are there for Social Security numbers and cards. It’s the largest workload in any Social Security office.
Back to my senior center on Whidbey Island. I would spend the day helping young people get Social Security cards and helping old people file for Social Security benefits. After spending five or six hours there, I would head back to the ferry with my briefcase stuffed with filled-out applications and forms.
Then, the next day, I would drive up to a little Cascade Mountain hamlet called Skykomish, Washington, and start the process all over again. A couple of days later, I’d be off to another island (Camano Island). It was a pretty good life. I mean, if you’ve got to be a boring old government employee, you might as well be one who gets to drive around and see fascinating places as part of the job.
A few years later, I found myself as the field representative in the Social Security office in Boise, Idaho. Boise’s service area was huge—a big chunk of south and central Idaho. There I found myself taking overnight trips to distant locales. For example, I would leave Boise on a Tuesday morning, drive north 100 miles or so and set up shop for the rest of the morning in Cascade, Idaho. After taking care of the local townsfolk there, I would continue driving north another 100 miles or so to the resort town of McCall, Idaho, with a majestic mountain setting right on an alpine lake. I’d check into a hotel for the night.
Then, on Wednesday morning, I would set up my mini Social Security office, but not in a senior center. Instead, it was in a meeting room of a deluxe lakeside resort. Gosh, if you have to take Social Security number applications and retirement claims, you might as well do so in a lakeside resort with windows looking out over snow-covered mountains!
Sometimes, field representatives even made “house calls.” One time, I was sent to a home outside of Emmett, Idaho. I was there to take a retirement claim from a guy who was temporarily housebound in a wheelchair following a skiing accident. He was a retired senior pilot for United Airlines. And he lived in one of the biggest homes I had ever been in. It was a three-story older Victorian home surrounded by acres of open land. It was the only private home I’d ever seen with its own elevator!
All these memories bring a smile to my face. I think of my time as a field representative as the “good old days” of Social Security. The service we provided was phenomenal! Not only did we go around to every little burg and hamlet and provide one-on-one service to the local citizenry, but we also went to people’s homes to take care of their Social Security business. That just doesn’t happen anymore.
And I understand why it is a thing of the past. It was a wonderful way to provide service to our customers. But that was 40 years ago. Today, with the internet and cellphones and other modern tools, it makes no economic sense to be running around from hamlet to hamlet and house to house. But it’s also too bad. We’ve lost a way of doing Social Security business that I think was something special.
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, and recently published the book “Social Security: Simple and Smart.” If you have a Social Security question, contact him at email@example.com.