Well, I just spent another day answering emails from relatively well-to-do readers who want to know how to squeeze every last nickel out of their Social Security benefits. As someone who never really fixated on the accumulation of wealth, I’ve always wondered if all of this money they were trying to bleed out of the system was going to buy them happiness. I mean, if it does, then I guess that’s good. But I’ve mused before about how so many seniors seemed to be stressing out over decisions that may or may not add a few more crumbs to their already-stuffed Social Security cookie jar.
And it got me to thinking about a man I met in the early days of my career working for the Social Security Administration who was on the opposite end of the economic spectrum. In fact, he was the only person I ever met who said that he was getting too much money! I’ve written about him before. But I think it’s time to share his story again.
In 1973, I was working in a Social Security branch office in a small farming community in central Illinois. Congress had recently passed the Supplemental Security Income program. As I’ve explained many times in this column, SSI is not a Social Security benefit and is not funded by Social Security taxes. It is a federal welfare program for low-income elderly and disabled people that happens to be managed by the Social Security Administration.
So, anyway, in the early 1970s, SSA employees were sent on a mission to help as many people as possible to apply for the benefits of the new program. But those “benefits” weren’t really all that impressive. At the time, the Supplemental Security Income program could supplement someone’s income up to $160 per month. In other words, if a person was getting a $120 monthly Social Security check, and had no other income, he or she could get an additional $40 from the new SSI program.
(Gosh, it may seem to some of my younger readers that I am writing about the Depression era. I even find it hard to believe people were living on $160 per month, or less, during my lifetime!)
Well, one of the folks I came across in our efforts to find people potentially eligible for SSI benefits was an old man living alone in a three-room house on the outer fringes of our little town. I’ll call him Don. Don was about 70 years old. He was single and living on an $80-per-month Social Security check. That was his only income in the world. His little house, which he had inherited from his mother, was paid for. And with the help of food stamps and some assistance with his utility bills from a local government agency, Don managed to get by on that small amount of income.
When he came into the office to see me, I explained that the new SSI program would double his monthly income. Instead of receiving just $80 per month from Social Security, he would get an additional $80 per month from SSI. His monthly income would go up to a whopping $160! But surprisingly, Don was reluctant to sign up. He explained that he was getting by just fine without the extra help. However, what convinced him to apply for SSI was the added bonus of automatic eligibility for Medicaid benefits. (Medicaid is the federal health insurance program for poor people, as opposed to Medicare, which is usually tied in with Social Security eligibility and is available to both rich and poor Americans.)
So, Don applied for the new program, and within a few weeks, his monthly SSI checks started to roll in. After he got his first check, I went to his home to visit him. He proudly showed me the used TV he bought with his first SSI check. He said he was sure glad I talked him into signing up for SSI benefits. The next check came in, and I learned that Don bought a toaster oven.
Fast-forward about two months. On a pretty spring day, Don parked his bike next to the big picture windows that fronted our small Social Security branch office and walked in. I noticed his bike was festooned with a new basket and bell, and he even added some of those colorful plastic streamers you see attached to the handlebar grips of kids’ bikes. (One of the ways Don got by on such a small amount of income was by walking or riding his bike to most places he went. He hadn’t owned a car in years.)
He came up to my desk looking a bit sheepish and said, “Tom, I want you to take me off this gosh darn SSI program.” When I asked why, he told me he just didn’t need all that money. I tried to point out that $160 per month really wasn’t all that much money.
But to Don, it was. He said, “Tom, look at my bike. I bought that bell and those silly streamers because I had the extra cash. I look like a damn fool riding around town now.” And then he went on: “And that stupid TV. I used to sit around at night and read. Now I’m glued to that darn contraption, and I waste my time watching ‘Love Boat’ and ‘Laugh-In’!”
I pointed out to Don that the extra money was one thing, but that the potential benefits of the Medicaid program could be invaluable to him. He thought about it for a minute and finally said: “I just don’t want it. I’ve gotten along just fine for years now on my Social Security checks and Medicare. I simply don’t need SSI and Medicaid.”
I had to do a bit of digging through our rulebooks because I had no idea how to take someone off of SSI. But found the instructions, located the right form needed to withdraw his application, and helped Don fill it out. He signed it and walked out the door a satisfied man. As he got on his bike, I saw him pull the streamers off the handlebar grips and stuff them into his pocket.
Later that evening, I dropped by Don’s place. I wanted to confirm that he was sure about stopping his SSI checks before I submitted his withdrawal form. But as I walked onto the porch of his modest little house, I could see through a window that the TV was gone. Don was sitting in a chair reading. I didn’t even bother knocking on the door. I knew he was happy!