Everybody Is Cheating the System But Me

By Tom Margenau

January 29, 2014 7 min read

Q: My Social Security check is being docked this year because I worked and made too much money last year. I am a hardworking guy trying to make ends meet and live within the rules. So I guess I can accept the reduction in my benefits. But what really gets my goat is all the Social Security money the government is sending to folks who don't deserve it. I'm primarily talking about people who never worked a day in their lives who are cheating the system living off the good graces of hardworking people like me. Why doesn't someone do something about these injustices?

A: If my email inbox is any indication, you are echoing a commonly held belief. It goes something like this: "I deserve my Social Security check. But a whole lot of other folks sure don't deserve theirs!" Maybe that's just human nature? Maybe it's greed? Maybe it's a reflection of people's mistrust of government? But whatever it is, it's wrong!

There isn't a single person getting a Social Security retirement or disability check that hasn't worked and paid taxes to earn that check. Or who isn't the spouse or child of someone who has. I understand your bitterness at being overpaid benefits due to the complicated earnings penalty rules I've written about many times in this column. I think it would be fair to gripe about the complexity of those rules. (I sure do.) But I don't think it's fair that you bash other Social Security recipients. They all "deserve" their Social Security benefits as much as you "deserve" yours.

(I know many folks think the Social Security disability program is rife with fraud. It's really not, but it's a common perception. As I've written many times in this column, if you know people that you believe are cheating the system, turn them in. Go to www.socialsecurity.gov and click on "Report fraud" under the "Contact Us" link.)

Q: I come from a long line of folks who work hard and live an honest life. I'm 72 years old and get $1,850 per month from Social Security. I know I should be getting more, but what can I do about it? That's why it really ticks me off when I see all these deadbeats getting SSI benefits. Some of these folks are getting $2,000 per month or more and almost all of them have never worked a day in their lives. What is fair about that?

A: Your email echoes two other familiar complaints I here all the time. The first is that you are being paid the wrong amount. The second is a misunderstanding of the Supplemental Security Income program.

As I've written before, in my 40 plus years of working for or writing about Social Security, I probably have heard 10,000 people complain that their Social Security benefit payment is wrong. And guess what? All of those people were convinced they were being paid less than they were due. Not surprisingly, in four decades, not a single person has ever come up to me and said, 'You know, I think I'm getting too much money from Social Security!"

So I have to wonder again: Is it human nature? Is it greed? Is it a reflection of people's mistrust of government? And once again I must point out: It's almost always wrong.

The time to complain about the amount of your Social Security check — or rather, the time when you have the best opportunity to do something about it — is when you first start getting benefits. When that happens, you get an "award letter" from the Social Security Administration that tells you, among other things, how much you are due each month. That award letter includes a paragraph that essentially says this: "If you disagree with anything about your benefits, you have 60 days to file an appeal."

While I worked for SSA, I helped thousands of people fill out appeal forms to question the amount of their Social Security payments. And I literally can count on one hand the number of times the benefit rate turned out to be wrong. You can gripe about government inefficiency all you want, but one thing they are extremely good and accurate about is computing Social Security benefit payments. (Bear in mind that I am talking about the initial benefit rate. I have written many times about the mistakes the agency makes when trying to adjust ongoing Social Security checks for working beneficiaries under age 66 who earn more than prescribed earnings limits.)

So I'm pretty sure that $1,850 Social Security check you are getting is the right amount. But assuming you did nothing 10 years ago when your benefits started, and assuming you've been stewing about this for a decade now, you might want to sit down with someone at your local Social Security office who can go over the computation with you.

Now on to your uninformed complaints about the SSI program. SSI stands for Supplemental Security Income. It is a federal welfare program funded out of general revenues, NOT out of Social Security taxes. So SSI is not a Social Security benefit. It just happens to be managed by the Social Security Administration.

SSI pays a very low monthly benefit, usually less than about $750 per month. I can assure you there is no one on SSI getting anywhere near the $2,000 per month rate you cited in your email.

Most folks getting SSI are either widows (and a few widowers) who get a very small Social Security check with an equally small SSI supplement; or they are disabled folks who little or no income. It's true that some SSI recipients may have never worked and paid any taxes. But that's because the vast majority of those recipients are disabled children.

You may be confusing the SSI program with the Social Security disability program. Many people do. But unlike SSI, all the people getting Social Security disability have worked and paid taxes. That's how they qualified for benefits in the first place.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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