No Text Messaging Service, More and Longer Waits for Help From Social Security

I used to say that I was the only person in the developed world over the age of three who didn’t have a cell phone. Then my brother Tom told me he didn’t have one either. Now it seems that having not only a cell phone, but one that’s text-enabled isn’t just a handy alternative to email.

The Social Security Administration has just informed me that I can’t use my online account unless it can send me a text message whenever I try–and I text back. So I’m doomed again to hours on hold — and probably hours sitting in the local SSA office, as I had to do when some glitch in the system blocked my online account.

I could, of course, join the 21st century. But not all elderly and younger people with disabilities can afford a cell phone and the related fees, let alone the surcharges for texting.

The federal government offers low-income residents free cell phones and some variable number of free minutes. All but eight states restrict eligibility for this so-called Lifeline to people whose incomes don’t exceed $15,890 — this for people who live alone, as I do.

The cut-off is barely more than the average Social Security retirement benefit before the deduction for Medicare Part B, which most prudent retirees choose. And it’s less than 150% of the federal poverty line for a single person — a measure some analysts use to define low income.

Even income-eligible people may not have cell phones. One reason, I think, is that they have to choose between a cell phone and a landline. Some feel they can’t do without the latter — easier for people with poor vision to punch buttons for outgoing calls and see who’s calling them, for example.

Others might willingly forgo the landline, but live with someone who depends on it. The Lifeline choice isn’t personal, but for everyone in the household.

Texting poses other challenges. I think of my mother-in-law, who’s about to turn ninety-seven. Her right hand, never fully functional since a stroke some years ago, couldn’t readily peck out a message on a little keyboard.

SSA says it’s imposing the text messaging requirement as part of a government-wide effort to tighten up cybersecurity. I can see how a hacker could do mischief by accessing my account.

But the agency delivered the text messaging requirement as an edict, giving no one a chance to raise concerns or suggest alternatives. The executive order it refers to seems open to the latter.

Congress may make matters worse — not only for text-less seniors, but their younger counterparts who’ve either become too disabled to continue working or never could.

The House Appropriations Committee has reportedly decided to cut SSA’s budget by $250 million, though the agency has already lost roughly 10% in real dollars since the across-the-board spending cuts and caps required by the Budget Control Act.

A cut over on the Senate side too, the Washington Post reports in a column focusing on what unnamed agency officials say the House cut will mean for people applying for benefits, waiting for decisions and simply needing some personal help from a staff member.

Now there will surely be more of the last, thanks to the texting screen. Waiting for hours in an office isn’t nearly as bad as waiting for months to receive the benefits you need when your spouse dies — or for nearly a year and a half, on average, when you’ve appealed the agency’s rejection of your initial disability claim.

But my ample opportunities to observe others sitting in the office I go to suggest those long waits may do more than provoke acute impatience — something I’m more prone to than I should be.

I saw, for example, people with disabilities who had to have relatives with them to help with the applications process — or the interactions needed to resolve problems.

Not only they, but some other former workers, including seniors had somebody there to take them home — presumably the same person who brought them there. So they might have had to do without the benefits they needed for weeks (or months) longer because no one could immediately take enough time off from work.

Fulminating over SSA services last year, I cited a Los Angeles Times columnist who suggested that Republicans want to get us so riled up that we’ll accept some private-sector alternative. The head of the union that represents many agency employees says that’s why House Republicans voted for the latest budget cut.

I’m pretty riled up, as you can see, though not nearly that riled up. I do, however, feel that SSA has further disadvantaged people who’ve already got disadvantages not freely chosen, unlike my stubborn resistance to a smartphone.

UPDATE I: Minutes before I published this, I got a message from my bank, saying that it had instituted a multi-factor authentication process  — the technical term for what SSA has adopted. It does not require use of text messaging.

UPDATE II: My gripe abut text messaging is moot, as my next post reports. My concerns about long waits aren’t.

4 Responses to No Text Messaging Service, More and Longer Waits for Help From Social Security

  1. Pal M says:

    Also, one must consider that it is ONE lifeline cell phone per household. Therefore, if the household has more than one adult, the phone may not be available to the other(s) for job search etc. If you have a member of the household who has a priority need, e.g. a medical condition or school requirement, it then reduces the availability (and number of minutes) for the rest of the household. (I have one child with a cellphone requirement for school and another child with a chronic medical condition who needs to carry a phone.

  2. Kathryn Baer says:

    Thank you for pointing out these additional problems with the one per household limit.

  3. Patty Johnson says:

    Kathryn,

    Loved this…was going to text you how much. We are so pavlovian!

    Onward! Patty

    Patty Johnson patrileyj@aol.com

  4. […] out I was far from the only one upset by the Social Security Administration’s decision to block access to online accounts for […]

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