The ‘time tax’ of Social Security

By Christopher Harper

Over the past few months, I have tried and failed to get a check from Social Security, a system I’ve paid into for 52 years.

It’s rare that I agree with The Atlantic, but a story in the magazine caught my attention. In a recent edition, writer Annie Lowrey described the “time tax” of the federal bureaucracy that angers and exhausts many Americans. See https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2021/07/how-government-learned-waste-your-time-tax/619568/

“Government programs exist. People have to navigate those programs. That is how it goes. But at some point, I started thinking about these kinds of administrative burdens as the ‘time tax’—a levy of paperwork, aggravation, and mental effort imposed on citizens in exchange for benefits that putatively exist to help them. This time tax is a public-policy cancer, mediating every American’s relationship with the government and wasting countless precious hours of people’s time.

“The issue is not that modern life comes with paperwork hassles. The issue is that American benefit programs are, as a whole, difficult and sometimes impossible for everyday citizens to use. Our public policy is crafted from red tape, entangling millions of people.”

I’m one of those entangled in that red tape. 

As I neared 70, I decided it was time to ask for my check. I tried to fill out the lengthy questionnaire on the website at ssa.gov. The questionnaire refused to accept my wife’s birthdate.

Therefore, I had to schedule a telephone appointment. The next available one was in two months. 

I spoke with a friendly fellow in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, and I felt good about the conversation except that he told me I had to provide a marriage certificate.

Couldn’t he check with the IRS, where my wife and I had filed a joint tax return since 1979?

Nope, he told me. I had to get one from Chicago, where we were married. Knowing that Chicago is far from the most efficient city government these days, I momentarily wished for the days of Richard J. Daley.

The Cook County office, where Chicago is situated, told me it would take as long as 90 days and cost about $50. Fortunately, it took only about a month. 

I sent the document to my Social Security adviser, and all seemed to be going well until I didn’t get my check in mid-August as expected.

After several messages, I finally got a return call from my adviser. No one else could help me.

Alas, he told me, there was a problem with my application. I would have to start the process again. That process is expected to take two to four months. 

I guess I am a prime example of the “time tax” in inaction.  

One thought on “The ‘time tax’ of Social Security

  1. Back in the mid-90’s I worked with foreclosed HUD loans. At the time, it was axiomatic that it would take an average of 7 calls to any government office to simply find out the name of the person you needed to talk to, and then good luck actually getting that person on the line. But after you finally did find the right person…. that person’s contact info became gold…. Though then they’d get promoted, or retire, or transfer to a different job and then you’d have to start it all over again. But until that happened…

    Over time we built up contact lists within the company to try to shorten the time spent on the phone fruitlessly being put on hold and transferred round and round the government offices. It was a never-ending cycle.

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