When SSI came into existence, in January, 1974, the people who were eligible for it had been brought forward from the various State’s aid programs for the aged, blind, and disabled. A set of Federal rules replaced 50 different sets of State’s rules. Needless to say, in the early years there were a lot of overpayments, which were not worked very efficiently at the time. Many recipients had multiple records started and terminated before SSA got it right. Quite a few had two records paying them at the same time. It was a mess for two or three years.
When President Reagan’s minions discovered these old overpayments, they got really excited. “Oh boy!” they thought. “Here’s $2 billion we can collect from impoverished aged, blind, and disabled people!” In early 1982, each SSA office began working on what were called the “Backlog Overpayments.” The office where I worked had about 700. One of these backlog overpayments belonged to Andrew.
Andrew was a man in his late sixties or early seventies who was homeless, or as he insisted on having it written down on his forms, “lives outdoors.” Rumor had it that he had been some sort of professional (consensus was an engineer) who had suffered a major breakdown years before. Now he lived behind a nearby carwash, with all his possessions in two Samsonite suitcases strapped to a walker. He did not need to be homeless. He usually had about $1500 in his bank account, just under the resource limit, and several hundred more in his wallet, and could easily have found a room or small apartment. He just preferred to live outdoors. He got his meals at a lunch counter in a nearby drugstore, and washed up in their restroom. As far as he was concerned, his life was nearly ideal.
Andrew had been overpaid in 1977 when he received a retroactive Social Security Disability payment of about $2300.00. This caused him to be ineligible for SSI during the quarter in which he received the retroactive check. Since he had received about $1500.00 from SSI in that quarter, that was the amount of his overpayment..
In the summer of 1982, while I was waiting to go to claims representative class, I was given these overpayments to work. At that point about 400 remained. One afternoon I sent a letter to Arthur asking him to call me to discuss repayment.
A few days later, he came in. He was quite angry. He demanded to know how and when the overpayment had occurred. Andrew had an odd way of talking. He had a raspy voice, and he spoke in a fast, staccato manner like Walter Winchell. All he needed was the ticker sound effect Winchell used. I explained the circumstances of how his overpayment occurred.. He got madder. He remembered the retroactive check very well. When he received it, he had brought it into the office and the claims representative to whom he had spoken, whom he identified by name, had stolen it and had given him a bogus check in exchange. I asked him how he knew it was bogus. He said, “I have the check right here. I’ll show you.” While I watched, completely dumbfounded, he reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket and withdrew a messy bundle of papers. He sorted through these until he found what he was looking for, a Social Security check still in its envelope.
Most government checks in those days were printed on bluish green computer punch cards. This check had ridden inside his jacket, next to his body, and been sweated upon, for five years. It was bleached almost white. But it was still good. (This was years before Limited Payability, when the Treasury Department changed the rules so that government checks were only good for six months.) I thought quickly, then said, “Even though you think that this check is no good, I will be happy to accept it as a refund of your overpayment. You will even get some money back, about $800.”
This seemed to please Arthur. He endorsed the check over to us, and I had collected one of my first overpayments.
A couple of years later, Andrew called me on the phone. “I understand that Social Security employs people who go out of the office and visit people where they live,” he declared.
“Yes,” I said. “They’re called Field Representatives.”
He launched into his story. The night before, his two suitcases had been stolen. He had gone looking for them and had found them in a trash container in a laundromat. They were opened and the contents scattered. In the same trash container were several pornographic magazines. He had put two and two together and come up with the startling conclusion that somehow our field representative, who was a cultured, ivy league educated woman, had done this terrible deed. She had taken his suitcases, opened them and rifled the contents, then placed all his stuff along with the pornographic magazines in the trash container. Stifling a giggle, I said I’d check into it. When I saw the field representative later that afternoon, I told her about Arthur’s accusations, which caused her to laugh vigorously and to say she had been nowhere near the carwash.
That night, when I got home, I told my wife about Andrew’s strange story. She laughed, and said that if the field representative had really done such a thing, then the pornographic magazines must have come from GSA.
Before I continue, I need to explain about GSA (General Services Administration.) At that time, everything the government bought, including pens, desk supplies, furniture, leased space, gasoline for government-owned cars, literally everything, was purchased by GSA under contract with the lowest bidder. Gleaner went on to imagine GSA pornography might look like. Unattractive lowest bid models wearing shabby lowest bid lingerie, photographed in really tacky lowest bid settings.
Something like this.
Don’t worry, this is a still from a real movie and quite a good one, Seven Beauties. The actress, Shirley Stoler, was acclaimed for her harrowing performance as the the brutal and depraved Nazi commandant.
When I was rewriting this piece, I did a little checking and found that Andrew had died in about 2005. I wondered if he had continued to live outdoors until the end of his life. It seemed to agree with him. The last time I saw him, about 25 years ago (he was a regular fixture on the local streets) he looked hale and strong as he marched to wherever it was he was going.