Columnist Is Right — Parents Are Not 'Mooching' Social Security

Q: In a recent column, you categorically stated that people cannot bring their foreign-born parents to this country and then put them on their Social Security account. You said the only way that could happen is if someone died. In other words, you claim that benefits to parents can be paid only after the death of one of that parent’s grown children.

But I know for a fact that this is untrue. My ex-husband brought his parents to this country in the 1980s and immediately put them on his Social Security. And they got those Social Security benefits for the rest of their lives. How could you print such a big lie?

A: I didn’t lie. The problem is that you are confusing one government program with another one. However, you are not alone in that confusion. I got emails from dozens of readers challenging me on my facts or accusing me of lying. And every one of those readers made the same mistake you are making. I’ll explain in a minute, but first I will review the facts.

In that prior column, I took on a ubiquitous rumor that Social Security is going broke because retirees are bringing their elderly parents to the U.S. from foreign countries and then putting those parents on their Social Security account. People claimed that these parents were “mooching” undeserved benefits off the system — benefits financed by over-burdened American taxpayers.

I correctly pointed out in that column that the only way a parent could claim benefits off an adult child’s Social Security record is if the adult child died. And then benefits could be paid only if the adult son or daughter was supporting his or her parent before the son or daughter’s death.

Finally, I made clear that out of roughly 50 million Social Security beneficiaries, only about 2,000 people get benefits as dependent parents on a deceased son or daughter’s Social Security record. And the vast majority of those parents are U.S. citizens. So even if they were all “mooching” benefits from the taxpayers (which they are not because they are getting paid legally), they are certainly not bankrupting the Social Security system.

All the readers who claimed they had personal knowledge of a foreign-born parent getting Social Security benefits were actually referring to folks getting Supplemental Security Income payments.

As I’ve pointed out so often in this column, far too many people confuse SSI with Social Security. SSI is a federal welfare program that pays a very meager monthly check to about 6 million elderly and disabled poor people in this country. Even though the program is managed by the Social Security Administration, SSI is not a Social Security benefit, and SSI checks are not funded by Social Security taxes.

Up until about 20 years ago, it was possible for an elderly person who moved to this country legally to qualify for SSI benefits after they arrived — assuming they met all the eligibility requirements. So, many people, like your ex-husband, brought their parents over here and then took them down to the Social Security office to help them file for Supplemental Security Income payments.

Because they went to a Social Security office to do this and because the name of the program makes it seem to be a Social Security supplement, many folks mistakenly believed their parents were getting some kind of Social Security benefit. But again, they were not. Those foreign-born parents were getting monthly SSI checks.

And they didn’t get the checks for long. Sometime during the early 1990s, Congress changed the law to say that, with only very few exceptions, only U.S. citizens could qualify for Supplemental Security Income payments.

So foreign-born parents have never “mooched” benefits from the Social Security program, and for the past two decades, they haven’t “mooched” benefits from the Supplemental Security Income program either.

Q: My dad is 104 years old. He lives in a nursing home. A Social Security representative recently visited him and asked to see some form of identification. What was that all about?

A: Gosh. I didn’t know the Social Security Administration was still doing those ID checks on centenarians! It’s an anti-fraud measure to make sure people that old who are getting Social Security benefits are really still alive.

As I recall, the project started 30 or more years ago following a spate of news stories about grown children cashing their deceased parents’ Social Security checks. During my career with SSA, I visited hundreds of centenarians and essentially asked them: “Are you still alive?” I always found that so embarrassing! And in all the cases I was involved in, there never was even a hint of fraud.

Frankly, I’m not sure how effective or necessary that program is anymore. Today, are all kinds of other anti-fraud measures are built into the system, such as computer-matching operations with banks and state bureaus of vital statistics. With only a few rare (and thus newsworthy) exceptions, if you’re old and you die, Social Security is going to find out about it.

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



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