Friday, October 16, 2009

A Problem of Social InSecurity

I haven’t posted in a while partially because I have been working on what feels a bit like dead end research for my next blog. Although my research is more or less inconclusive at the moment, I will share what experience and research have taught me so far.

One category of guests at Annunciation House is the social security category. The social security guests come twice a year for one month at a time. They are typically older women and sometimes have kids. They are the survivors of a US resident or citizen who paid into the social security system then passed away. As social security policy goes, the surviving family of a deceased social security contributor can get survivors benefits in the form of a monthly check. The twist; what happens if the family is Mexican, and lives in Mexico? Well, the policy says that in order for them to receive their checks, they have to stay in the US for one month every six months. As I bet you can imagine, this can get problematic.

A feasible scenario illuminates the difficulty and injustice of this policy. Maria, a Mexican national, marries Juan, a US citizen. Mary, a US citizen, marries John, also a US citizen. These married couples live together for years in the US, Juan and John working and paying into social security. One day, John and Juan pass away, leaving and Maria and Mary to support their families alone. Maria, looking for help with her kids, moves back home to Mexico where family and friends can lend a hand. Mary continues to live in the US. Each month, Mary gets her social security checks in the mail, her only source of income, but luckily, just enough to get by. For Maria, things are more difficult to get her only source of income. Each year, the Social Security Administration tells her the two months that she must stay in the US. For at least one of those months, her kids are uprooted from school, as they are required to come with her to the US. She has to pay for transportation, food and housing for each month that they are in the US. But despite these costs, she still makes the trip north, because it gives her access to her only source of income. As Maria gets older, it becomes harder and harder to travel north. Eventually Maria is sick and can’t travel, but unfortunately more dependent than ever on these monthly checks. So, Maria’s health won’t allow her to take the twenty hour bus ride from central Mexico to El Paso, and subsequently, her only source of income gets cut off from her. This tragedy occurs often. If you were Maria, a social security beneficiary, would it be tragic that once you need your monthly checks the most, they are cut off because you can no longer travel? If you were Juan, a US citizen who fell in love with Maria, would you feel your rights were being violated when the money you paid into the system was cut off from your wife when she became too sick to travel to the US twice a year?

Aside from the injustice to the people and the immorality of it, this policy is also explicitly harmful to US taxpayers. On more than one occasion, we have seen elderly women come to the US for their assigned month, get sick, and end up spending the month in a US hospital, leaving the bill for the taxpayers. But what do we expect when we ask elderly women in poverty to spend 16% of every year in the US without family to take care of them?

The situation instinctively seems very clear cut. It is a policy that doesn’t make sense and has the effect of leaving deserving people very desperate. It is a policy that needs to be changed as soon as possible. With that being my goal, I set out to do some research.

Some of my initial questions were: what is the name of the act that put this in place? When did it take effect? Is Mexico the only country to which it applies? Why hasn’t it been challenged?

The first try was with the board of directors of the Texas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, who fortunately for me, held one of their quarterly meetings at Annunciation House. On the topic of civil liberties and constitutional rights, we brought the social security issue to their attention, and to my surprise, they were overwhelmingly uninformed of this issue. They were astonished by the glaring unconstitutionality of it. Their lack of awareness tipped me off that finding information might be difficult.

My next stop was the Internet and the library. Both proved useless. I spent hours on the Social Security website sifting through policies that might contain this piece, but I couldn’t find anything pertinent. And not surprisingly, the El Paso Public Library did not have books about social security policy.

I then decided to go directly to the source. I walked the five blocks to the downtown social security office. As I entered, there was a machine that I pressed to get a ticket. The ticket printed and read, “You will be helped in approximately 450 minutes. Please take a seat and wait for your number to be called.” The hundreds of people sitting and waiting was a daunting site to see, and without 450 minutes to spare, I turned around and walked home. At home I looked up the social security phone number and gave them a ring. 20 minutes after listening to ear piercing on-hold music, I was startled by a real-live voice. This was a breakthrough.

The helpful man on the other end informed me that the policy was part of the 1977 Omnibus Reconciliation Act. With that name, no wonder I couldn’t find it online. He told me that this social security policy applies to every country in the world, not just Mexico. Surprised and unbelieving I asked, “So a women from Australia has to fly to the US and back twice a year to receive her checks?” He replied, “well they actually have a treaty with us to override it, so Australians can receive the checks without traveling.” On to something, I asked, “how many other countries have a treaty like this too?” “A few” he said. “What about France, England, Germany, Italy, Canada, Switzerland, Denmark…” I inquired. The answer was yes, yes, and yes. They all have treaties too. “What about Brazil, Honduras, Peru, Argentina…” The answer was no, no, no. They don’t have treaties. I quickly learned that if a country was primarily white and wealthy, they most likely had the treaty. If they weren’t white or wealthy, they most likely didn’t have the treaty.

This conversation was incredibly helpful and changed my thought path on how the policy might be changed. I had assumed that the policy was discriminatory against a few countries, and therefore could be challenged on the basis of NAFTA, other international agreements, or as unconstitutional. But the fact is that the policy is completely universal, and across the board. It is just isolated treaties that help some countries get around this crippling policy. Can a country be blamed for signing treaties with some countries and not with others? That is a right the government does indeed have.

The questions that this arrangement begs are what does a country need to attain this treaty. Has Mexico really not tried to make the treaty? Or have they just been denied? Is requiring a women from South America to come to the US twice a year to receive her checks essentially denying her her checks, because the travel expenses would make it fiscally useless? Is there a reason for the immense racial divide that tells whether or not a country has the overriding treaty? If we accept that it is necessary for Canada to have a treaty, why isn’t it equally necessary for Mexico to have the treaty?

My next goal is to answer these questions and then write a letter to my Congressmen.

As I have previously written, it is rare that I can feel so one-sided and sure about right and wrong on a particular issue, but this is one of those rare occasions. I know that this policy towards survivors of social security contributors needs to end, and the sooner the better. If you feel outraged, or even just agitated, by the situation Maria finds herself in, or for the citizen whose wife is put through so much just to receive the checks his family deserves, I hope you will help end this. I will post the letter to my congressmen, hoping that anyone interested will alter it accordingly and pay the 44 cents to send it along to his/her congressperson with his/her signature at the bottom.