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Columnist’s “ivory tower” is in basement of a suburban split level

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POSTED July 27, 2012 11:04 p.m.

Q. How does it feel sitting there in your ivory tower with all the trappings of power serving as a mouthpiece for the Obama Administration? Why should I believe anything you say? After all, you're paid to mislead people about the corrupt workings of the Social Security system!

A. Wow — I must admit that little diatribe came out of the blue! It followed an exchange of emails I recently had with a reader. It's a totally ridiculous accusation. But I bring it up only because many readers think I work for the Social Security Administration and that I am some kind of spokesperson for the agency. I am not. And I certainly am not a "mouthpiece for the Obama Administration."

The person who sent me this email, along with more than a few other readers, believe that I have an office in an ivory tower somewhere in Washington D.C.; that I get my daily marching orders either directly from the president or certainly from the head of the Social Security Administration; and that I'm paid handsomely to mislead people into falling for the failed policies of a doomed social program.

Let me paint a more realistic picture for you. I'm a frumpy old retired government employee, eking out an existence on a modest civil service pension, living with my wife of 40 years in a split level home in Colorado — and sometimes at a beach bungalow in San Diego. My "ivory tower" office is a desk in our basement. The "trappings of power" that surround me include grandkids' toys and a 25-year-old couch permanently sticky and stained by the spills of both my kids and now my grandkids.

It is true that I once was a spokesperson for the Social Security Administration. I worked for SSA for 32 years, and for part of that time, I served as the agency's deputy press officer. But I retired about seven years ago.

I started writing this column while I still worked for SSA. I no longer was in the agency's press office when I wrote the column, and I never had to get official clearance for any column I wrote while I still worked for the government. Despite that fact, I guess you could say that while I was still working for SSA, this column was a quasi-official mouthpiece for the organization. At least I certainly dared not write anything that was against agency policy or that would upset my bosses!

But that all changed the day I retired in 2005. From that point on, I was no longer a spokesperson (some might argue an "apologist') for the Social Security system or the agency that runs the program. Instead, I was just a retired old goat who knew a lot about the inner workings of Social Security and who was eager to share his knowledge with the readers of this column.

And I can tell you that I breathed a huge sigh of relief on the day I retired. Not only because I wouldn't have to fight Southern California's nightmarish traffic to get to work each day. But because I was now free to "tell it like to is" — to explain Social Security rules without having to worry about any "spin" that SSA's political leaders might want to put on the program. And because I would be able to freely criticize the agency or its employees when I thought they were doing something wrong.

I've done both many times over the past seven years. Yet some people still want to believe that I am some kind of paid "flack" for the government. As an example, let me explain what led to the diatribe that began this column.

A guy wrote to ask me some questions about filing for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. (To remind some of my readers, SSI is a federal welfare program that SSA runs for the government. It is NOT a Social Security benefit. It's an entirely separate program.) Anyway, he apparently had gone to his local Social Security office to file for SSI benefits. He was angry because the person he talked to simply told him he wasn't eligible and sent him on his way.

I wrote back to tell him that my hunch was the SSA representative was right. SSI has very specific and rigid rules about income and asset eligibility requirements. (Those rules vary from state to state, so I can't just list them here.) If you have even one dollar more than the rules allow, you're simply not eligible for benefits. That reaffirmation of the SSA's reps denial of his claim is what set him off. And part of his missive to me used phrases like, "I know you guys are paid to turn down as many people as you can for benefits."

There are two main points this guy failed to understand. One I didn't make clear in my first answer to the guy. The other I did.

Point one is that SSA employees are NOT paid to deny Social Security or SSI benefits to anyone. They are paid to carry out the rules and laws of both programs. In fact, they have an incentive to take as many claims for benefits as possible. Staffing levels in local Social Security offices are determined, in part, by how many Social Security and SSI claims they process each day. So generally speaking, the only time they are not going to take a claim for benefits is when the person clearly isn't eligible for such benefits. In other words, why waste their time, and the customer's time, when the outcome (a denied claim) is not in doubt?

Having said that, the second point I made to this guy (the one he missed probably because he was blinded by rage, which he then directed at me in his follow-up email) is a point I make all the time in this column. And that is: you have every right in the world to file for any kind of benefit for which you think you are eligible. So if a Social Security rep says that you aren't eligible for Social Security or SSI, you can — and should if you really believe you are due benefits — insist on filing. That way, you will get a formal (and legal) decision as opposed to simply someone's opinion.

And now, if you'll excuse me, my wife is asking me to come down out of my ivory tower to take out the garbage!

 

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