The New York Times published a fascinating article about the origins of the Supplemental Security Income (SSI) program. I have spent decades in this field, but I learned some new facts from the article. In particular, the author explained the reasons, based on history, why it is so hard to qualify for and collect SSI benefits.
Roots In The Great Depression
As you probably know, the government enacted the Social Security Act in 1935. As you also probably know, this was during the Great Depression. As the article
notes, when Social Security began, there was a fundamental problem: it was supposed to be funded by people paying into the system during their working lives. But, Social Security was new and no one had ever paid anything. To avoid the problem of having no one eligible, Congress directed the states to set up cash assistance programs for the elderly, single mothers, and the blind.
Too Easy To Qualify?
But, this created for some, a new problem: what if it was to easy to qualify for these cash assistance programs? If people could get the same benefit without ever
having paid into Social Security, why would they bother? The chairman of the Social Security Board, a character named Arthur Altmeyer, feared that the state-based cash-assistance programs could rival, or even replace Social Security.
Blame Arthur Altmeyer
So, what did Altmeyer do? He told the states that they would not get any federal money for their cash-assistance programs unless they made qualifying for them as unpleasant as possible. This meant personal investigations of applicants. It also meant reducing their available benefits if they had any other resources. When the state programs were rolled into Social Security in 1971, Altmeyer's restrictions and complications came, too. In fact, most of them are in place to this day.
Economists Have A Term For This
I was amazed to learn the economists have a term for this. They call it the ordeal. Simply put, it means that would-be SSI recipients must be made to pay a significant price in time and indignity to qualify.
It's startling to think that the awful bureaucracy of the Social Security Administration, to include unthinkable delays in processing applications, is there by design. It gives one pause and a reason to reflect on the very nature of our relationship with our public servants.
Forewarned is Forearmed
Take the time to read the article. It is a real eye-opener. I won't make the process of getting SSI any easier. But, at least you will have some idea why Social Security acts the way they do in their dealings with the most vulnerable among us.