Sunday, February 05, 2006

Social Insecurity

In the shower (where we all entertain our deepest thoughts, yes?) I was thinking about my retirement, at least 17 years away. I'll be nearly 70, but that's the earliest I believe I can afford to walk away from gainful employment.

All this, of course, is predicated on my receiving something close to what Social Security is (not exactly) promising me. (Ever notice that disclaimer on our yearly statements that says, to paraphrase, here is what you can expect to have upon retirement...except that all the figures are subject to change?)

One thought leads to another, which leads to another, and I thought back to the brief days when I worked for the Social Security Administration, at HQ in Baltimore. I worked in a department whose exact name I no longer remember, but it handled foreign claims. My primary job was to type up the letters and memos dictated by the people who were handling review of such claims.

It was not infrequent that at issue was the conflicting claims of two "wives." Mario of Italy leaves his wife Isabella and kids at home and heads to the U.S. of A. to make money to support the family. Once in the U.S., Mario gets comfortable with his new American life, quits sending the money home, and never returns. In part (I presume) he is able to stay because he marries Polly of Poughkeepsie and perhaps even becomes a citizen. (How Mario gets away with the bigamy I do not know.)

Fast forward: Mario dies, and Polly, a stay-at-home woman who thought she was a wife, collects social security in good faith based on Mario's earnings. At some point, someone suggests to the abandoned Isabella, who was never divorced from Mario, that she might be able to collect social security based on Mario's earnings. Isabella files a claim, the SSA investigates, and then I get to type The Letter.

It's only one page long and terse. It briefly recaps the situation: Polly is not Mario's lawful wife; Isabella is. Polly has 30 days (not kidding) to refund to the Social Security Administration the benefits she has erroneously received. Please remit funds in the amount of $30,942.67 by... (This was the early 70's...imagine the numbers today.)

Thirty-five years later I still think about Mario and Isabella, but I especially think about Polly, elderly and destitute, and deeply in debt to her Uncle Sam.


Madame X said...

Ever notice how the wording of that disclaimer on the statement has changed over the years? They've made it sound a lot more panicky than it used to.

Bitty said...

Oh so true! I was looking for my file on it to quote exactly, but it wasn't where it was supposed to be. When I worked for SSA, one of the things we did was go through an orientation and I will never, never, never forget all the talk -- every speech touched on this -- about how social security was so brilliantly structured that we would all get our full benefits when the time came.

In 1971, I wasn't worried about that. I doubt anyone was. But apparently the SSA was interested in making that point. In 1971.