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Friday, October 28, 2016

Yes, Social Security Is an ‘Entitlement’ — Literally

Q: In a recent column, you advised a 55-year-old man who had just lost his job and had some back problems to file for Social Security disability benefits. To quote from your column: “It doesn’t hurt to try filing for disability benefits.” That’s what’s wrong with our country today. We have an entitlement culture. Everyone thinks they are due something from the government. And you are just perpetuating this entitlement problem by encouraging this guy to file for Social Security benefits!

Q: Your recent column advising a man to file for disability benefits really ticked me off. You [blankety-blank] liberals never met a government program you didn’t like. And by trying to get as many people as possible on the taxpayer’s gravy train, you’re just adding to the problem. No wonder our country is in such a mess. We need to start cutting government programs, not encouraging more people to apply for them!

A: Gosh, sometimes I write what I think is the simplest little column trying to help a guy in a tough situation — and I catch all kinds of grief for it. These two emails are just a sampling of the many I received chastising me for suggesting that a man file for Social Security disability benefits. And some of the responses I got were downright mean and nasty! I guess I pushed a few buttons that are indicative of the conservative “get the government off my back” mood our country seems to be in.

Here was the story. A 55-year old man had worked at the same job for the past 30-plus years and had recently been laid off. He said he was looking for work but wasn’t having any success. He mentioned that he had severe back pain and although he was reluctant to do so, his wife wanted him to file for Social Security disability benefits. He emailed me asking what chance I thought he had of qualifying for such benefits.

In my column, I essentially told him two things. First, I told him the obvious: He would have no chance if he never filed for disability benefits. And then I did say that it wouldn’t hurt to try filing for such benefits, and I told him how to do so. But the second thing I told him is that I thought there was a pretty good chance he would be considered simply unemployed and not disabled.

I explained that to qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must have an impairment so severe that it is expected to keep you out of work for at least 12 months. Because he himself said he was looking for work, it sounded to me like he wouldn’t meet that legal definition of a disabling condition.

But here is the point: He has every right in the world to file for Social Security disability benefits. We all do. And it’s my job to tell him so. In this guy’s case, he worked and paid Social Security taxes for more than 30 years. He’s out of work. He has a medical condition that is causing him pain. And I have learned in four decades of working with the Social Security program that many people who file for Social Security disability benefits have more medical problems than they initially allege.

For example, in addition to his back problems, this guy might have high blood pressure. He might have a little heart tremor. He might have hearing loss. His back pain alone may not be enough to qualify him for benefits. But a combination of impairments might make him legally disabled.

I don’t know anything about the man other than what he wrote in his short email. But I would have been entirely negligent had I answered him by saying something like: “You’ve got a bad back. Well that’s tough! I’ve got a bad back, too. You are not eligible for Social Security disability benefits, and you have no right to apply for them!”

I guess that’s the message all the people who got upset with my answer wanted me to deliver to this guy.

Many people throw around the term “entitlements,” as if all government programs are free giveaways. And according to these folks, everyone today feels entitled to something, and that’s why this country is going to you-know-where in a hand basket! They are especially upset with those “[blankety blank] liberals,” who just encourage everyone to get on the entitlement train. And if you listen to the anti-government crowd, they’ll tell you that Social Security is the lead car on that gravy train.

Well, Social Security truly and literally is an “entitlement” program. Retirement, disability, and survivor’s benefits make up what is known as Title II of the Social Security Act. And the law says that if you work and pay taxes for a required amount of time and if you meet all the other eligibility requirements, you are indeed entitled to Social Security benefits.

I must, however, make this important semantic point: There is a difference between being eligible for a government benefit and being entitled to it. On the very first day of my training class, when I joined the Social Security Administration over 40 years ago, I was taught that everyone who works and pays taxes is potentially “eligible” for Social Security benefits, but you don’t actually become “entitled” to them until you file and sign a legal application for benefits and your claim is approved.

Like it or not, Social Security is an entitlement program. And as taxpayers, each one of us has every right to apply for such benefits.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected]


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Copyright 2011 The National Memo
  • Pam Osborne

    I want to thank you for clarifying the Social Security issues that are being flung around the conservatives. I have worked a total of 30 years during which I paid into Social Security through taxes. Therefore, I do have a right to such benefits as offered by Social Security, as you said, as long as I qualify. The first time I sought benefits I lost, not because I wasn’t disabled, but because I didn’t have the appropriate documentation from my doctors (a little issue that many people don’t realize). Later, after attempting to work for an additional 4 years, I ran myself into the ground so far that I don’t know if I’ll ever dig out. I have 2 major disabilities that, this time around, was recognized by Social Security as permanent disabilities. This is not a free ride. I paid into this service. What many people also don’t realize is that Social Security periodically checks on you to see if the disabilities have resolved and you are considered to be able to work. And those that think this is a cash cow – try living on $1400/month – because that’s what a few of my friends on disability get because they didn’t make enough money during their working years. This is something that many people don’t realize – the benefits paid are dependent on how much you’ve paid into the system in the first place.

  • Dik

    Mr. Margenau;

    There are many problems with SS, too numerous to mention, but all are caused by one primary condition from which all the problems spring. It is a government enforced program subject to the whims of vote seeking politicians.

    Dik Thurston
    Colorado Springs

  • kurt.lorentzen

    No one (not even the Republicans that I know) believe that someone who is truly disabled doesn’t deserve to apply for Social Security disability benefits. I have a friend (younger than me) who has been on SS for two years now. He doesn’t have to go to work in the morning or worry about whether his pension is solvent. But I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes. He has a degenerative back condition that has damaged the nerves. There is no cure. His legs and feet are in “pins and needles” state continuously, he walks with a cane now, and as he ages his condition will worsen. Does he qualify for the benefits he’s been paying for all his life? You bet! I also have a sister-in-law who hasn’t worked in ten years. She’s racked up personal debt to the point where lenders have now cut her off. She is applying for “Disability” because she has a “mental condition” that makes it “difficult” for her to maintain a job. I say, “Hey, it’s difficult for all of us to maintain a job. But we get up every day and go to work for that paycheck so that we can pay our way in the world”. For me, I’m happy work a few seconds each day on behalf of my disabled friend. To my sister-in-law I say, “Get a job”.

  • Dave DiDo

    I’d like to comment on some of the recent letters about Social Security.I’m a licensed insurance agent in the State of Ohio and one of the products I sell is disability insurance.Unlike auto and home and even life insurance, disabilty income is a tough sell.It is not cheap. Many people want it until they find out how much it costs and then they decline.There is also the problem that some occupations are uninsurable because they are risky.Then, too, some individuals are uninsurable because of health factors.
    Those who downgrade our Social Security system and think that they could do better with their own private plan had better think twice.Are they including disability income in the cost of their plan? I would guess that, if people were left to design their own retirement plan, they would decline purchasing disabilty insurance.Then what would we do as a society with the thousands of people who will become disabled at a young age? Will we euthanize them or will they go on the public dole? Neither prospect is good.
    Social Security was put into place for some very good reasons. It is a good program that works and it could be self-sustaining if handled properly. Don’t let the idealogues destroy a program that has served our citizens well.

  • Ginico

    Recently Alan Simpson of the Simpson/Bowles commission was on TV telling that when they looked at our tax code, they found 180 tax deductions (he called them “earmarks for the rich” being used by the top 400 people to the tune of $1T out of tax revenue every year. This seems to backup the article by Buffet that by taking every advantage legal in the tax code he paid 17.2% taxes on his income. Now we have the Social Security Trust Fund that represents $2.7 trillion of the deficit, that mostly middle class and the poor have paid into most of their lives. The tax was doubled by Reagan to buildup the fund for the boomer retirement. At a townhall meeting two weeks ago, I was told by my “tea party” Representative that social security was in jeopardy because “the money is not there, it was spent on other things. It’s complicated!” Well it’s not complicated to me . . . if they take that $1T given to the top 400 every year for three years, they could eliminate it from the dificit and restore the solvency of social security, then take it out of the “general fund” and off limits to spending. It could be invested in “real treasury funds that pay dividends which would go a long way toward keeping the fund solvent. But of course, according to the Republicans, that would penalize the “job creators” . . . give me a break – where are the jobs, they’ve had this money all through the Bush regime and they ended up with zero job creation!

  • Michael Whitehead

    I highly resent some of the disparaging remarks concerning Social Security and Social Security Disability.

    First, Social Security doesn’t contribute one dime to the deficit. It has over 2 trillion dollars surplus. If you want to complain about something, complain about Congress, who has continually taken money out of the SS trust fund to try and balance their budget.

    Social Security will be solvent for at least another 25 years, doing nothing. Some small, minor reforms, could extend that for decades more. Those who advocate a “voucher” system, are just plain nuts!

    I have been on disability for over ten years, with multiple chronic health problems. I worked all of my life, and am not “milking” the system.

    Those who do not understand, should do some investigating and get some actual facts before they make baseless accusations.

    First, you have to be out of work, unable to perform any substantial, gainful employment, for at least 12 month — totally disabled. Then, odds are after you initially apply your claim will be denied — up to 90% of initial claims are denied. So then you appeal. That takes about a year and a half. Odds are that you will have to hire an attorney if you want to have any chance of succeeding. You also have to have at least 40 quarters of working before even applying.

    If you finally get your disability approved, it “ain’t” no gravy train. I make about $1500 a month. Try living on that for awhile!

    And then there is Medicare. Once you get approved for disability, you have to wait an additional two years before you can start getting any Medicare benefits. And you pay about $100 a month out of your benefits for it. Then you have initial annual deductibles and a huge deductible for hospital stays, which starts all over again every 3 months. Plus the 20% co-pays for all approved services, hospital stays and everything else. Medicare isn’t that great, but it’s better than nothing.

    To summarize, if you worked all your life and need the help that these programs provide, and you qualify for them, then go for it! To all those who whine about the programs, someday you might need the help these programs provide. Let’s see you whine then!!

  • ps2os2

    Just to be clear on this I am on Social Security disability.
    13 years ago I had been working all my life since I was 18 (part time before that) I have paid into Social Security. In 2000 I had a stroke at home. It was not a stroke that caused any physical issues. The stroke I had was strictly brain and in turn created major short term memory loss issues. I was out of work for about 2 months and really thought I was OK to go back to work which I did and proceded to go from a star performer to the point of being fired because I was screwing up so badly on the job and I was screwing up as I couldn’t do simple thing (too long to relate here) so finally I went on short term disability and I was mentally a wreck as I just could not function anymore). I went to see a lawyer and she suggested I go on long term disability and to get a psychologist psych report to back up my problems. I had to fight to get one with the insurance company and after I had taken the test it showed how bad my memory issues were. I was able to get long term disability based on that alone (from my company). What I did not know was that the company wanted to get me on Social Security so they wouldn’t have to pay for disability until my retirement. So they forced me to apply for SSD. The other issue that I was unaware of was that George B had cut back the number of judges at SS. This had the effect of taking me 4+ years of waiting to get a hearing. I went through the hearing and the judges did not even have to talk amoungst themselves that it was plain that I should be on disability. They voted in the hearing that I should be awarded disability.
    I had paid into SS for 42 years at that point. I am still on disability through SS now 11 years later and will be until I retire at 65. I can barley function in day to day life. I forget while I am cooking what I am preparing and even with recipe cards I will double up on items or forget them completely. I do not make anything with more than 3 or 4 items. I forget to pay bills so I am on auto payment for almost everything. My doctor wanted to surgery on me but I can’t take care of myself to the level needed for 6 months afterwards because of my memory issues so I am battling other health issues and some are just not winnable because I do need so much hand holding. I make mistakes typing andeven the best spell checker can’t help me out as I use a lot of computer technical terms that spell checkers just cannot handle and I end up correcting the spell checkers. I can no longer balance my checkbook (can’t add & subtract) I eek by with help from friends but barely.
    I earned this by putting money in every pay period for 42 years. My former job is almost now extinct because of off shoring of computer departments and even *IF* I could function I couldn’t find an employer wanting to hire a person with severe short term memory issues. My job called for a LOT of memory usage and there are very few if any jobs that do not use memory as a basis for employment.

  • lawlass52

    Thank you Mr. Margenau for explaining that all people who work for a living and pay taxes into the social security system are indeed ‘entitled’ to social security, IF they meet all the OTHER requirements!. Conservative politicians have convinced many citizens that social security is equivalent to a government welfare program. It is a shame that a lot of people don’t realize the money taken out of their pay for ‘FICA’ stands for Federal Insurance Corporation of America, and that this Corporation actually holds the social security trust fund. People also don’t realize that our government during the Bush Adminstration borrowed millions of dollars from the social security trust fund and now our government does not want to pay it back. If I as an ordinary citizen was in charge of a trust fund and did that, I would be subject to prosecution for misappropriation of funds or theft. So why are we permitting our government to raid the social security trust fund? Do the conservatives have an answer for that question?