The Redemption Unit

Sunday’s Boston Globe launched a three-part series by the formidable Patricia Wen on the federal government’s $10 billion Supplemental Security Income (SSI) disability program for children.

The piece describes the origins of the program this way:

The federal disability program for poor children was born four decades ago, shortly after Congress rejected President Nixon’s groundbreaking 1969 proposal for a guaranteed minimum income for the poor.Instead, as a compromise of sorts, federal lawmakers approved the Supplemental Security Income program for the elderly, as well as for blind and disabled adults. Some early drafts of the proposal made no mention of children. But at the 11th hour, and virtually as a footnote, lawmakers in 1972 designated disabled children eligible for SSI payments. 

I worked for SSI from September 1975 to March 1977, and have a slightly more detailed recollection (so to speak) of its origins:

Prologue

I got my job at the Social Security Administration the same day I got caught shoplifting. It was 1975 and I was working at the Deaconess Hospital in Boston as an X-ray messenger, one in my series of “smartest” jobs – as in “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever packed orders at this warehouse” or “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever parked cars in this outdoor lot” or “you’re the smartest guy who’s ever ferried patients down to the X-ray department.”

That’s what a Jesuit education will do for you.

Smartest or not, I still had to wear the sky-blue polyester V-neck shirt with patch pockets issued to all the hospital’s X-ray messengers. The patch pockets were what got me in trouble. You could easily palm something (say, a cinnamon donut in the Deaconess cafeteria), stick your hands in the sky-blue polyester pockets, and go your merry way. Ditto for a pack of razor blades in the nearby Harvard Medical Coop.

Except my merry way was blocked that day by a Coop security guard. Busted, I sat in a bare room at the back of the store and calculated the odds. If I just kept quiet and let retail justice take its course, I figured, I could probably minimize the consequences.

Sure enough, the Chief of Security (see our ad in Sunday’s classified section) told me that the incident would go on my Harvard Coop permanent record, and that my trade was no longer welcome there or at any other Coop, of which there was one.

I meandered, bladeless, back to the hospital. There was a phone message waiting: The Social Security Administration wanted me to be a claims representative in its Boston District Office. I called back and said yes.

* * * * * * *

You know the Social Security Administration had a problem if it was hiring the likes of me. And that problem was SSI: Supplemental Security Income.

Introduced in 1974, Supplemental Security Income was a program that took aged, disabled and blind people off the state welfare rolls and put them on the federal dole. SSI was designed to “provide a nationwide floor of income for needs-based assistance.” Floor was right: the monthly payments when I arrived in 1975 were $167.80 for individuals and $251.80 for couples. (Just as a point of reference, I took home $425 a month when I started at the Social Security Administration, and I felt poor myself.)

In addition to establishing the sway-backed income floor, SSI was supposed to “make such payments more efficiently by working through SSA’s existing network of field offices.” The efficiency part didn’t work out so well; when over three million people were converted to the SSI rolls in 1974, almost all of them got top dollar in their classification, just to get them into the system. Of course SSI officials introduced corrective measures with all due haste, which in government time meant about a year later.

And so the Redetermination Unit was born – a sort of pencil-wielding SWAT team dedicated to saving the system from itself. One morning in September of ’75, Boston’s Redetermination Unit assembled in a back room of the downtown District Office, or DO. The Operations Supervisor – an unapologetically large man whose tie hovered several inches north of his belt – stood in front of the room and addressed the group.

“We’re glad you assholes are here,” he said.  “You get to clean up the mess we made.”

We looked around, laughing nervously. The OS started pacing back and forth in front of us. You know how novelists sometimes write that So-and-So “was surprisingly light on his feet for a big man”? The OS wasn’t.

“I know some of you came here thinking, ‘Great, I’ll get on the government payroll and never have to work again.’ But that’s not gonna happen at this DO. I’ve seen some world-class malingerers in my time.”  He started counting on his fingers. “There was Stockroom Ellis . . . Caffeine Jones . . . and let’s not forget Water Cooler Watts, who refused to take a retirement claim from his own mother.”

We didn’t believe a word of it. But the OS was just getting warmed up.

“And the greatest of all SSA stallers – Harland “What’s My Name” Williamson, who cleared only two cases in five years. We finally had to let him go. From the 12th floor.”

The OS stopped pacing and lit a cigarette.

“Trust me, you’re no Harland Williamsons. You’ve got your work cut out for you.”

There were 4.3 million people collecting $6 billion in SSI at the time, and all those benefits needed to be “redetermined,” a four-syllable word for cut. SSI claimants – every one of them – had to come into the DO for an interview.  The redetermination letters went out on red stationery and the people came pouring in. But first there were the phone calls.

(To be continued . . . if you want)

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14 Responses to The Redemption Unit

  1. Bob Gardner says:

    There were 5 coops–the other 3 at MIT, HBS and a tiny one at Harvard Law School. I can’t say that I remember any list of banished customers, though.

  2. Jim Mulligan says:

    Don’t stop now! Please.

  3. Michael Pahre says:

    By all means, keep it up!

    What is the source/link of these autobiographical musings? If you’re writing your memoirs aren’t you supposed to have either one foot in the grave or a history of sexual abuse?

  4. Pingback: The Redemption Unit, II | Campaign Outsider

  5. Pingback: The Redemption Unit, III | Campaign Outsider

  6. Pingback: The Redemption Unit, V | Campaign Outsider

  7. arafat kazi says:

    I love how all the slackers have names out of Chester Himes novels. Caffeine, the less violent brother of Gravedigger Jones. And Harland Williamson deserves a novel of his own, a one-off by one of those clever mid-20th century people, where he’d be a drunk and a slacker at work, but he’d be building model trains in his spare time and that would lead him into solving a murder case. An early Bellow maybe???

  8. Pingback: The Redemption Unit, VI | Campaign Outsider

  9. Pingback: The Redemption Unit, VII | Campaign Outsider

  10. Pingback: The Redemption Unit, VIII | Campaign Outsider

  11. Pingback: The Redemption Unit, IX | Campaign Outsider

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