Contrary to what our “rugged individualists” and Tea Partiers say, relying on social security is a little like being on death row. You just never know when the Great Machine will stop payments and you will die in the streets. Ok, it IS different. On death row, the Great Machine actually kills you.
I had to go to the Social Security Administration the other day to get a replacement 1099 for ULOB. I walked in, without an appointment, and was stunned by the stench, the number of humans and the number of crippling ailments in this vast room. I immediately thought that this could be in a scene in the streets of Calcutta or Mumbai.
I spoke to the security guard, who told me I was in luck! For replacement 1099s I got to go a different floor, to a quieter room. As I got onto the elevator, I held the door for two people who could not stand up straight or walk without assistance. They were indigent, in bad health, and had atrophied limbs.
I got off at my floor and walked into a room with upbeat and helpful security guards and less people. Still the intermittent, pungent wafts of air made me want to faint. There, as I soon understood, slightly demented people sat waiting for information. Some, frankly, had no where to go and wanted to ask hypothetical questions, which were met by screams from the Social Security Administration staff who stood behind bullet-proof glass. Although doctors and hospitals cannot give out medical information without violating a myriad of laws, everything is OUT LOUD and PROUD at the SSA office. Or, OUT LOUD, anyway.
After many hours, it was finally my turn and I presented my uncle’s death certificate, my letters of administration and my driver’s license and asked for a 1099 for his social security income so I could finish his final tax returns. The lady behind the bullet proof glass looked at me, looked at my papers, looked at me, did stuff on her computer, looked at me and then got up. Uh oh, I thought. But she walked over to the printer, brought back a piece of paper, stamped it and said, “here you go.”
It was the 1099!!! I thanked her for a most enjoyable experience with government. I even thanked the nice security guard.
I told this story tonight to someone who is an advocate for the indigent and the sick. What was a funny story became less so because all of a sudden I realized that I sailed through the morass (relatively) quickly, but there are some people who are stuck in that vortex, deserving of aid but without the right paperwork necessary for the vast governmental program.
Yet without social security, even more indigent and tragically maimed people would be on the streets. And our cities would be indistinguishable from Calcutta or Mumbai. And then all of America would see what our nation would look like without social security. And then we wouldn’t think of our nation as the nation of the able-bodied and young and fearless.
We would know that social security is to protect our most vulnerable, our tragically ill, as well as our seniors.
When I looked at the mass of humanity in that first room I entered (and even in the smaller room), I knew these people cannot be hired, cannot be trained and cannot survive without our society’s help. They are not lazy. They are just, sadly, not competent. Even to help themselves get the social security benefits they need to survive.
No one would trade places with these people. They are not laughing, collecting money off of our hard work and living the high life.
If you believe that every life is valuable (and not just at conception), then you need to believe in social security for those who are physically or mentally or educationally unable to work and support themselves. Because they are part of us and the American Dream — while some achieve great things (and even fortunes), all our citizens deserve at least an opportunity to live in a clean home with enough food.
This started out in my mind as a funny story of the privileged New Yorker enduring the vagaries of government sponsored programs solely for the purpose of paying taxes on ULOB’s social security benefits.
It turned into a lesson about all the politically invisible people in our society who need us.
Let us not turn away from them.