In the Line at Social Security, I Wonder, Have We Made It Too Easy to Quit?

Friday, July 8, 2016

One of the smartest, most perceptive persons I have ever had the good fortune to know, a gentleman from Worcester who has had a long and highly successful career in accounting and insurance, once said to me, “I’m willing to insure you for your bad luck, but I’m not so ready to insure you for your bad behavior.”

I thought of my friend’s comment on Wednesday morning of this week as I was standing outside the  Social Security office in the lobby of the Tip O’Neill federal building, 10 Causeway Street, Boston.  My wife and I were in line, waiting to be called for an appointment I had set up to discuss her eligibility for Medicare.  (Yes, damn it, we’re getting to “that age.”)
Against my better instincts, I fell into a conversation with an old gent standing behind me who instantly tried to learn if I was a Trump supporter.  “Which one do you like?” he pressed.  The skeptical look on his face suggested he’d pegged me as a Hillary man.  “Neither,” said I.  That was enough to keep him friendly.

Meanwhile, my wife started kibitzing with a together-looking woman of approximately my wife’s age, who was in line ahead of her.  The woman was with a muscular man on the younger side of middle age who turned out to be her son.  She shared that her son was pursuing a Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability, (which in MA has a state component, in addition to a larger federal component), and that she was there to attest to the details of his medical history, including a recent (ostensibly minor) stroke. A six-footer who had his back to me most of the time, the son was standing straight and tall. He used neither a cane nor crutches. 
My wife has always had the effortless ability to elicit from strangers some of their deepest thoughts and fears.  She never pumps people; they just tell her things. In less than five minutes on Wednesday, she learned that the son was 40 years old and had struggled for years with an addiction to narcotics, which had contributed to his health problems and convinced him that he now was incapable of ever holding down a job.

I obviously do not know enough about that man’s situation to say he does not deserve SSI.  I am not a physician and thus have no standing to disagree with any medical professional who would be willing to certify that the man’s drug use had destroyed his health and rendered him incapable of gainful employment. 
That will not discourage me, however, from opining that the possibility alone of obtaining SSI encourages someone like that 40-year-old man to throw himself on the mercy of the federal and state governments rather than test his mettle again in the job market.

We definitely need to have SSI for disabled persons, but we provide that humane support at the unquestionable risk of attracting considerable numbers of persons who are kind of ill and kind of debilitated, and who have lost the drive, the wherewithal, to fend for themselves, and who, in that state of loss, have convinced themselves no further struggle of a moral nature is required of them and that they are within their rights to partake of the resources of the government for the rest of their lives, which, given the ever-improving capabilities of medical science and all of the material comforts America offers its citizens, could easily last for 30 or 40 more years.
I should note that no disabled person will ever live well on SSI alone.  The standard monthly federal benefit for an individual is now $733, while the program’s monthly state benefit for an individual is $114.   Who can go far on $847 a month?

To anyone reading this who says my opinion is too large and heavy to rest on the flimsy scaffolding of a quick, disjointed encounter in a Social Security line, I would answer, Yes, you are correct:  I have no idea whether that man will ever secure SSI.  He may, in fact, have no chance of that; however, I do know personally of at least two individuals who wrecked themselves when young on alcohol and drugs and who are now collecting SSI, so I know this is indeed a viable option today for the booze-scarred, the heroin-wasted and the oxycodone-crazed.  “Success” on this score inspires others -- where one goes smoothly down the SSI route, three will surely follow.

I believe in the Commonwealth with a capital C.  And Franklin Roosevelt, the father of Social Security, is my all-time political hero. I believe we are our brother’s keeper. I also believe that, after we keep him intact during worst part of his life, we should aim to return him to the wild as soon as possible.
Last night, as I rode the Orange Line home, I was thinking about if I should, and how I might, write this post when my eyes drifted to a woman sitting in a wheelchair by one of the car doors.  I hadn’t seen her until the crowd thinned, as it usually does on the Orange Line during evening rush hour, at Wellington Station, Medford.  Like most of the commuters aboard that train, she looked a little tired. Yet fatigue could not obscure her essential grit.  Her chin was set a little high; her lips were just shy of a grimace.  The woman’s clothes were those of a typical middle-aged, white collar, working woman in Boston today.  She looked to be about 40 years of age.   She made my decision for me.

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