Social Security

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My father’s siblings were an eccentric bunch. Born and bred in Brooklyn, they had a very peculiar perspective on the world. None of them ever learned to drive or talked on the phone. They seldom watched TV but lived by the clock, obsessively timing their every move down to the minute — meals, drinks, constitutionals, shopping, reading, waking and sleeping. They minutely measured every quantity that affected them — the volume of their hamburgers (a 50-cent piece), the number of cans of creamed corn in the pantry (4), the size of the jigger of gin in their drinks (1 oz.), the number of daily drinks (3 — plus a Ballantine’s Ale at lunch and a 6 oz. glass of Cribari Red with dinner), the length of their walks (10 blocks), etc.

Ken, the oldest, for some unknown reason, wasn’t fond of black people. But after his wife of 35 years passed away, he married a Japanese mail order bride and adopted two Korean orphans. The gambit forever severed his relationship with his first set of offspring.

Ruth, the only sister, moved in with the other three bachelor brothers — Wallace, Arthur, and Stanley — when her marriage fell apart. Wallace, a chain-smoking aesthete, wrote volumes of poetry and literary criticism, yet never held a job — an attitude vaguely reflected in his politics: he was a progressive social democrat whose ideal society, he quietly enthused, was realized under the Lyndon B. Johnson administration. He kept a secret stash of mild pornography in his closet.

Arthur, the youngest, lived under a tiny cloud of shame no one ever alluded to. A Teamster stevedore, he’d once had one drink too many and passed out on a park bench on his way home. Other than tending the siblings’ elaborate truck garden, he never worked again. On walks to the grocery store he’d stop to turn over upside-down beetles.

Stanley, a diminutive stockbroker with coke-bottle glasses, supported the household. He and Wallace had served their country during WWII in noncombatant roles. Stanley had once been engaged, but when his fiancĂ©e broke off the engagement without an explanation, he was heartbroken and disillusioned, and always remained that way. Upon retirement, and after Ruth’s death, the remaining brothers moved to a small town in eastern Colorado, where they lived very frugally except for the weekly visit of a cleaning gal.

Stanley and I kept up a weekly correspondence, mostly a running commentary on politics and current events. One day I received a letter informing me that the cleaning lady had altered a $100 payment check to read $1,000, cashed it, and disappeared. Stanley, who budgeted their affairs down to the penny, said that the theft — along with the rampant inflation of the 1970s — had reduced their finances to below a sustainable level. Could I help them out with a monthly stipend?

It must have been a tough letter to write.

I did — and enlisted my brother and sisters in the project. When my mother found out, she complained that the uncles refused to collect their Social Security checks. It was a matter of principle to them: even though they had paid into the system, they perceived it as welfare — not something they wanted to participate in (except for Wallace, I presume, who may not have paid anything into the system). Despite all that, I never questioned their decision, and continued to send a monthly check.

When Arthur passed away, Stanley turned down my offer to visit and help out. It would, he said — in the only phone conversation I ever had with him — “disrupt their routine too much.” When Wallace died, Stanley again begged off. He died in 1995 at the age of 86.

Last month, in anticipation of turning 62 before the year’s end, I visited my local Social Security office to help determine whether it was better to collect early benefits or wait until I turned 65. Unlike my uncles, I have no qualms about collecting from a system that I’m forced to pay into. I passed a security check, took a number, and patiently waited my turn. When it came, I got a totally unexpected surprise, untempered by any introductory foreplay: I was told that unless I paid another 20 quarters worth of taxes into the system, I would not qualify for any Social Security benefits.

Now, I’ve worked all my life (and continue to do so), and have always paid all my taxes assiduously (though not all of my income was subject to Social Security taxes). I've paid nearly $17,000 into the “compact between generations” (as the Social Security Administration phrases it). I figured my “investment” would be worth at least $80 a month. In spite of knowing that government programs never live up to their promise, I’d never considered that I would be outside the receiving end of Social Security benefits.

What might I have done with those $17,000 I’d paid in over the years? Or with the thousands in stipends I sent my uncles in lieu of their Social Security checks?

Who knows? But I am certain of one thing: I will not throw good money after bad.

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