They say we are living in the “post-truth” era — a time when discussion and debate is framed by appeals to emotion rather than verifiable facts. This, of course, is nothing new. Throughout history, more than a few politicians have ridden a populist wave of half-truths and outright deception to places of power, sometimes all the way to the White House!
But in this age of the internet and the proliferation of “fake news,” people can say just about anything, post it online, and large segments of the population will accept it as fact. For example, my granddaughter, in her first year of college, told me that some students in her American history class challenged the professor for allegedly covering up the “news” about Hillary Clinton ordering the mass murder of hundreds of people!
And just as there are outlandish lies being spread in the online world about people and politicians, there has also been an explosion of misinformation on the internet about Social Security. I’ve covered many of these silly and sad stories in this column. But they just don’t go away. I recently got an email from a reader passing along a particularly vile and vicious lie that has been floating around for the past five years or so.
It starts out with a photograph that is labeled, “Our tax dollars at work: Social Security office waiting room — Austin, Texas.” It shows a room full of chairs. Sitting in those chairs are a collection of mostly young to middle-aged people. Almost everyone you see in the picture is African-American or Hispanic. Below the picture, it asks this question: “Do you see any gray- or white-haired retired folks?”
And then this bit of vitriolic text accompanies the picture. “My friend went to the SS office to get a Medicare card. He took a picture of the waiting room. Please tell me if you can find a retired person in the place!!!! It’s called ‘disability’ insurance!!!! You no longer have to wonder why SS is broke!!!! These people do not pay into the system, nor are they disabled!!!! Please spread this picture to everyone you know…”
Let’s get to the untruths in this racist and xenophobic post. I’ll start with this whopper: “These people do not pay into the system.” How in the world can you tell that the folks sitting in those chairs have not paid into Social Security? Because they are black and Hispanic, do we automatically assume they are not working and paying taxes?
And then, supposedly, you can tell from looking at other people in the picture that “they are not disabled.” So, tell me, how does a disabled person look? Do they have to be wrapped head to toe in a body cast? Do they have to be on a hospital gurney? Maybe they just have to be white!
And then there is the implication that people who get disability benefits are somehow able to do so without paying into the system. That is simply not true. To qualify for Social Security disability benefits, you must work and pay Social Security taxes, usually for a minimum of 10 years.
Also, the Social Security disability program is known for having very stringent qualification requirements. Ask anyone who has ever gone through the disability claims process. He or she will tell you that it is extremely difficult to qualify for disability benefits. You must be fairly severely disabled before you will get such benefits.
As I’ve pointed out ad infinitum in this column, the Social Security Administration does manage a federal welfare program called Supplemental Security Income. SSI is NOT a Social Security benefit and is NOT paid for out of Social Security taxes. To qualify for SSI, you must be over 65, or severely disabled, and you must be poor.
So there is a chance that some of the folks in the picture are there to file for SSI benefits. (And by the way, the vast majority of people who get SSI are white.)
There is also the implication that Social Security offices should be places where only old people hang out. I understand why people think that. After all, if you played a little word association game and presented the phrase “Social Security,” many folks would respond with words like “old people” or “retirees.” But about 35 percent of all Social Security benefits go to people who are not retired. In addition to folks getting disability benefits, they also might be widows or children getting survivor benefits.
And as I constantly remind my readers who express concerns about the number of young people they see in a Social Security office, almost all of them are there to get new or replacement Social Security cards. That task alone makes up more than half of a Social Security office workload.
And, finally, let me address an issue raised by this internet posting and by readers who have observed the lack of older or more affluent-looking people in a local Social Security office. Where are they? They are home, sitting in front of their computers. Studies show that most middle- to upper-income people tend to use computers and SSA’s online services to file for benefits and conduct other Social Security business.
That’s why it does tend to be poorer and less-educated people who need to go to a Social Security office, whether it is to file for Social Security retirement or disability benefits, or sign up for SSI, or get a new Social Security card. SHAME on the person who instigated this garbage, and on those who spread it.
If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at email@example.com.