The wonderful columnist Tom Margenau, a longtime veteran of the Social Security Administration, responded recently to a question about an e-mail that has been circulating on the Internet. The gist of the e-mail is that illegal immigrants are filing for Social Security disability and thereby draining resources from the system. Of course this is not true. Here are excerpts from the article by Mr. Margenau:
Q: I would like you to comment on the attached email. In it, you'll see a photo that shows a waiting room in a typical Social Security office. I've seen similar scenes in my own local office. No wonder Social Security is in trouble if these kinds of people are ripping off the system!
A: Who are "these kinds of people"? To answer the question, let me describe the photo for the rest of my readers. Labeled "Our tax dollars at work: Social Security office waiting room — Austin, Texas," the image shows a room full of chairs. Sitting in those chairs is a collection of mostly young to middle-aged people. Almost everyone in the picture is African-American or Hispanic. Above the picture is this question: "Do you see any gray or white haired retired folks?"
And this bit of vitriolic text accompanies the picture:
My friend went to his Social Security office to get a Medicare card. He took a picture of the waiting room. Please tell me if you can find a retired person in the place!!!! It's called "disability" insurance!!!! You no longer have to wonder why Social Security is broke!!! These people do not pay into the system, nor are they disabled!!! Please spread this picture to everyone you know. Our country is going broke on this fraud!!! Please also go down to your Social Security office and take a picture and post it on the Internet. It just might wake up the country as to what is going on!!!
Gosh. Where and how do I begin to deal with this pile of Internet excrement? There's so much I could point out that is absolutely idiotic.
Let's start with one obvious point: I hope you realize how racist and xenophobic it is. The uninformed fool who posted this picture and text on the web never came out and said it, but instead of wondering where the gray-haired people were, he might as well have asked, "Do you see any white folks?"
And how about this whopper: "These people do not pay into the system, nor are they disabled!" How in the world can you tell all of that from looking at the picture? How can you tell that they haven't worked and paid Social Security taxes? I guess it's because they are "those people" — black and Hispanic. What other reason would the email sender have for saying that?
And how do we know they aren't disabled? What do disabled people look like? Do they have to be wrapped head-to-toe in a body cast? Should they be lying on a hospital gurney? Or, once again, I have to wonder if maybe — just maybe — the email sender thinks they have to be white (and possibly using canes)!
And then there's the implication that people get disability benefits without paying into the system.
That's simply not true. To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must work and pay Social Security taxes, usually for a minimum of 10 years. Also, people who really know how the system works understand that it's very difficult to qualify for Social Security disability benefits. In other words, you must be severely disabled before you receive monthly Social Security disability payments.
As I point out so often in this column, the Social Security Administration does manage a federal welfare program called Supplemental Security Income, or SSI. SSI is not a Social Security benefit and is not paid for out of Social Security taxes. To qualify for SSI, you must be over 65 or severely disabled, and you must be poor. So I guess there's a chance that some of the folks in the picture are there to file for SSI benefits.
But I can tell you that most of the young and middle-aged people you see sitting in that waiting room in the picture are not there to file for Social Security or SSI disability benefits. They are there to replace a lost or missing Social Security card. How do I know? Because internal SSA studies show that about 80 percent of the people who come into a Social Security office are there to do just that. That's the primary reason why you don't see any "white-haired folks" in a Social Security waiting room.
So where are the old folks who need to do business with Social Security? They are sitting at home on the phone or at their computer. Most people who file for Social Security retirement benefits do so either online or by making an appointment for a phone interview. They rarely, if ever, have a need to visit a Social Security office.
Shame on the people who are spreading this vicious email!