It’s forgivable that Ben Franklin didn’t include governmental bureaucracies with death and taxes as being the only certainties of life. After all, he died 143 years before that other Franklin – Roosevelt – laid the groundwork for the America’s administrative state.
This revelation came to me in early October, five days after my wife passed away, when a letter from the Social Security Administration notified me I was entitled to $255 in spousal survivor death benefits. The funeral home had reported the death a day after it happened, so I was surprised by how quickly the SSA sprang into action.
The letter told me to call a toll-free number about the benefit claim, which I promptly did. After going through an irritating introductory robo spiel (“What are you calling about?” etc.), the cheerful electronic voice promised to connect me to the right person. Instead, I got a recording telling me I had an estimated wait time of 45 minutes before I could talk to a human being.
I called twice more at different times over the next two days and got the same results. Then I realized how lucky I had been to get that far when the recording said, “All our lines are busy. Please try again later,” on my fourth call.
After several more fruitless phone calls during the following week, I checked the Social Security website for a solution. As I anticipated, there was no way to file a death benefit claim online, but it did mention that I could call my local SSA office instead of Washington.
I punched in a number, told the operator what I needed and was transferred to a phone that was picked up by a person. “Aha!” I thought. “I’m finally getting this done” No such luck.
The representative I spoke with offered his sincere condolences and took down my basic information. He then told me he was only a middle man – to actually file my claim, I still would have to talk to someone in Washington, but he could schedule a time for someone to call me. After doing some checking, he told me the earliest time I could receive a call would be mid-November, nearly six weeks away. I immediately agreed and wrote down the info on my calendar.
Before I hung up, I told the rep my wife and I had needed only short and simple phone calls to sign up for Social Security, so I couldn’t understand why there was such a convoluted process to collect a measly $255. He commiserated with me and said the rigmarole baffled him, too. “I’ve been here for 25 years and have never understood why it isn’t easier to get the death benefit,” he said.
Such are the ways of Rooseveltian bureaucracies.
When I finally received the phone call last Friday, it lasted about 10 minutes and was completely pointless. Instead of asking questions, the rep had me confirm information he obviously had in front of him. The only real question he asked was the city of my birth. When I gave the correct answer, I apparently proved I was not a lowlife trying to cheat Uncle Sam out of a small fortune.
A little background about the spousal death benefit is in order. It was included in the original Social Security Act of 1935, presumably to help grieving wives and husbands pay for their spouses’ burial expenses. The law capped the benefit at 3.5% of a person’s covered earnings, which would have been a maximum of about $315 when the law was adopted. Possibly nobody ever received such a large sum; in 1939, the average payment was $97 (roughly $1,709 in inflated-adjusted dollars).
Congress capped the lump-sum death benefit at $255 in 1954 ($2,388 today), and the limit was retained the last time the provision was overhauled in 1981 ($723 today).
In one respect, I’m glad the size of the benefit hasn’t changed in 63 years – it’s extremely rare when Congress puts on a display of frugality. On the other hand, I feel compassion for the poverty-stricken families who receive such a pittance when they have to bury a loved one. I know people who have spent more than $255 on a pet burial.
But despite the show of thriftiness, the Social Security death benefit – as it’s now constituted – wastes millions of taxpayers’ dollars a year.
It’s not the payouts that are wasteful, it’s the process. How many thousands of SSA employees spend millions of hours every year to take care of phone calls like mine? These are jobs that easily could be replaced by a web page (which probably would be more efficient, too).
Not only would streamlining the system save money, but it also would spare surviving spouses extra grief in their time of mourning.