Are you familiar with Tom Margenau?  He has written the “Social Security and You ” column for national syndication since 1997. His column appears in the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star.  I discovered the column several years ago and I look forward to my second cup of coffee with Tom on Sunday.  Mr. Margenau  worked for 32 years in a variety of positions for the Social Security Administration before retiring in 2005. Before he moved to SSA’s headquarters, he worked for 12 years in Social Security field offices around the country, where he processed Social Security claims while writing Social Security columns for local newspapers.

Tom answers questions from readers about anything to do with Social Security.  Some of the questions are almost like reading a Dear Abby column.  Life is complicated and so is Social Security.  Tom has a way of simplifying even the toughest questions so we can better understand SSA benefits.  I so enjoyed this story he wrote a few weeks ago that I want to share it with you.  

In 1973, I was working in a Social Security branch office in a small farming community in central Illinois. Congress had recently passed the Supplemental Security Income program. As I’ve explained many times in this column, SSI is not a Social Security benefit and is not funded by Social Security taxes. It is a federal welfare program for low-income elderly and disabled people that happens to be managed by the Social Security Administration.

So, anyway, in the early 1970s, SSA employees were sent on a mission to help as many people as possible to apply for the benefits of the new program. But those “benefits” weren’t really all that impressive. At the time, the Supplemental Security Income program could supplement someone’s income up to $160 per month. In other words, if a person was getting a $120 monthly Social Security check, and had no other income, he or she could get an additional $40 from the new SSI program. (Gosh, it may seem that  I am writing about the Depression era. I even find it hard to believe people were living on $160 per month, or less, during my lifetime!)

Well, one of the folks I came across in our efforts to find people potentially eligible for SSI benefits was an old man living all alone in a three-room house on the outer fringes of our little town. I’ll call him Don. Don was about 70 years old. (You can tell Tom was a young man , he thought 70 was OLD) Don was single and living on an $80-per-month Social Security check. That was his only income in the world. His little house, which he had inherited from his mother, was paid for. And with the help of food stamps and some assistance with his utility bills from a local government agency, Don managed to get by on that small amount of income.

When he came into the office to see me, I explained that the new SSI program would double his monthly income. Instead of receiving just $80 per month from Social Security, he would get an additional $80 per month from SSI. His monthly income would go up to a whopping $160! But surprisingly, Don was reluctant to sign up. He explained that he was getting by just fine without the extra help. However, what convinced him to apply for SSI was the added bonus of automatic eligibility for Medicaid benefits. (Medicaid is the federal health insurance program for poor people, as opposed to Medicare, which is usually tied in with Social Security eligibility and is available to both rich and poor Americans.)

So, Don applied for the new program, and within a few weeks, his monthly SSI checks started to roll in. After he got his first check, I went to his home to visit him. He proudly showed me the used TV he bought with his first SSI check. He said he was sure glad I talked him into signing up for SSI benefits. The next check came in, and I learned that Don bought a toaster oven.

Fast-forward about two months. On a pretty spring day, Don parked his bike next to the big picture windows that fronted our little Social Security branch office and walked in. I noticed his bike was festooned with a new basket and bell, and he even added some of those colorful plastic streamers you see attached to the handlebar grips of kids’ bikes. (One of the ways Don got by on such a small amount of income was by walking or riding his bike to most places he went. He hadn’t owned a car in years.)

He came up to my desk looking a bit sheepish and said, “Tom, I want you to take me off this gosh darn SSI program.” When I asked why, he told me he just didn’t need all that money. I tried to point out that $160 per month really wasn’t all that much money.

But to Don, it was. He said, “Tom, look at my bike. I bought that bell and those silly streamers because I had the extra cash. I look like a damn fool riding around town now.” And then he went on: “And that stupid TV. I used to sit around at night and read. Now I’m glued to that darn contraption, and I waste my time watching ‘Love Boat’ and ‘Laugh-In’!”

I pointed out to Don that the extra money was one thing, but that the potential benefits of the Medicaid program could be invaluable to him. He thought about it for a minute and finally said: “I just don’t want it. I’ve gotten along just fine for years now on my Social Security checks and Medicare. I simply don’t need SSI and Medicaid.”

I had to do a bit of digging through our rulebooks because I had no idea how to take someone off of SSI. But found the instructions, located the right form needed to withdraw his application, and helped Don fill it out. He signed it and walked out the door a satisfied man. As he got on his bike, I saw him pull the streamers off the handlebar grips and stuff them into his pocket.

Later that evening, I dropped by Don’s place. I wanted to confirm that he was sure about stopping his SSI checks before I submitted his withdrawal form. But as I walked onto the porch of his modest little house, I could see through a window that the TV was gone. Don was sitting in a chair reading. I didn’t even bother knocking on the door. I knew he was happy!


3 replies
  1. Pat
    Pat says:

    Since the setting for this story is the early 70s I can believe it happened. In those days many older people were of a different mindset. I would be really surprised if it happened today. Interesting story.

  2. Anonymous Friend
    Anonymous Friend says:

    Nice story, well written, and believable to a guy like me. Actually, I have a friend named Don (just a little older than your Don) who now lives a simple life much like your Don. He is alone and lives on only Social Security and Medicare, and he is happy in his tiny apartment. I am a little older and have much more, but like both of our Dons I am now alone and the life I choose to live is simple and fairly quiet. Money has never been important to me, but I learned to work hard within a profession I enjoyed and was paid well. Now, my only concern with money is to make sure that when I am gone mine helps others and doesn’t confuse their lives. Don could explain what I mean.
    I spend my time with memories of my wonderful wife and the exciting experiences my profession provided. The spiritual experiences afforded by my knowledge of God and time spent with my children continue to provide sparkle to my otherwise quiet life. Like Don, my TV is silent and while I don’t read as much as him, I do spend many evenings writing about things I have learned that I think will make life better for my grandchildren and anyone else who would care to read them. I also get to teach a little, and there are always opportunities to enjoy providing service to others. Like the money I have left, the problem with my writing is to leave it where others will benefit from it. By the way, I may have discovered how to invest both.
    Don and I are very different in the amount of our worldly possessions, but so much alike in our needs. I think we would be friends, though our friendship wouldn’t involve much in the way of conversation or visiting because I think we both just enjoy the simplicity that others might confuse as boredom. But don’t you be confused, our minds are filled with complexity, happiness and anticipation.
    Anonymous Friend


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