24 October 2007

On The Brink Of The Social Security Hole

Social security was invented, in part, as a safety net for widows and orphans. Usually, no matter what else happens, a widow and her children will be entitled to survivor's benefits until the children are grown, and when the widow is over the age of sixty-five. But, some cases are close ones.

The Facts

Tim Longmore was an expectant father, married only four days when he was killed in a car accident last week. "It's horrible. I can't believe it," said his wife, Krista Longmore, 22, who is 5 1/2 months pregnant. . . . [he] was on his way back to work at Home Depot in Glendale, returning from his lunch break at home. Shortly before 1:30 p.m., he was driving north on Colorado when he apparently ran a red light, crashing his Cadillac into a southbound sedan making a left turn onto Mississippi. . . . Tim Longmore had been working in the paint department at Home Depot for two years, after spending a year painting houses on his own. . . . They had been together since seventh grade. . . . Krista Longmore said their son will be named Timothy Sean Longmore Jr., after his father.

Tim Longmore graduated from high school in the class of '04 and was 22 years old.

Holes In the Safety Net

Deaths that happen going from home to work while on your lunch break often don't qualify for worker's compensation benefits. In contrast, if he had died while on a job related errand would likely qualify his wife for a lifetime pension.

He probably didn't, especially in the post-no fault era in Colorado, have a car insurance policy that provided benefits upon his death in an accident where he was at fault, which the newspaper article strongly suggests, and a wrongful death lawsuit is also an unlikely source of support for his survivors. If he had mandatory insurance coverage, however, he probably at least will have enough coverage to pay for any harm his car did to the other car in the accident.

At twenty-two, he had probably accumulated little wealth other than wedding presents.

He probably also hadn't yet bought significant life insurance, although he probably would have if he had lived even a little longer. Most employees don't sign up for life insurance through an employer when hired, if they are single and have no children at the time, as he was in this case. Most people buy private life insurance after they have kids, not when they have kids on the way, and usually, it doesn't matter.

He probably did have group life insurance through his employer for a couple times the amount of his salary. The $40,000 to $100,000 a group life policy would pay would probably have been enough to allow his grieving widow to get by for a while until she reached a point where she could return to single life and supporting herself. But, this amount of money doesn't last long when it is supporting a widow and a baby

A child who has lost both parents generally receives either financial support from the state government though the foster care system, or financial support from adoptive parents who are vetted prior to the adoption for their ability to financially support an adopted child.

Welfare, Medicaid and food stamps might help for a couple of years, once the life insurance money runs out, but welfare insists that she look for work immediately upon seeking benefits and stops after two years.

She can remarry, perhaps for love, but perhaps, just to survive. It is a pressure Kristina doesn't need right now.

In order to qualify for survivor's benefits under Social Security, you need a certain amount of time in the system, usually ten years. He probably didn't have that much time in the system.

Fortunately, for Kristina and the child she is likely to have, under a special rule, if you have worked for only one and one-half years in the three years just before your death, benefits can be paid to your children and your spouse who is caring for the children. Kristina's husband had worked at least two of the last three years at a job covered by Social Security. So, she is probably entitled to receive a modest pension from Social Security every month once the child is born, until her child is sixteen years old or she remarries, no questions asked (half of that is still payable until the child is eighteen whether or not she remarries). The amount of the benefit is on the order of $1,700 a month. It won't be enough to live on by itself, but it will be a huge help to her.

Social security and group life insurance benefits combined will probably be enough to allow her to stay home with her child for a few years before getting a job. And, even a pretty marginal job on top of Social Security benefits (which are adjusted for inflation) will probably be enough for a family of two to live on.

If this had happened two years earlier, however, when he had less than a year and a half in the system and didn't have benefits as a self-employed painter, the picture would be dire.


The survivorship requirement for Social Security survivor's benefits was probably invented to keep women who had been in the work force only briefly from qualifying for Social Security benefits. This limitation has outlived its usefulness.

The number of decedents who die with less than five years of work experience who leave a minor child and don't qualify is infinitessimal. About 98 of every 100 children could get benefits if a working parent dies from Social Security. Roughly one person in 1100 dies between the ages of 16 and 24, by which time the vast majority of adults with children have worked long enough at Social Security covered jobs to qualify. About 75% of children have mothers who are aged 25 or older at birth. The average married man is about two years older than the average married woman, and unmarried fathers tend to be older than unmarried mothers by a greater number of years. It is safe to guess that fewer than one in 4,000 children are in the Social Security hole that this post identifies, which this family narrowly dodged, and that in many of these cases that worker's compensation or a wrongful death suit will provide a realistic hope of support.

Considering that you have to come up with a death certificate and a child's birth certificate (easily confirmed with DNA testing) to qualify, the potential for fraud is very small.

But, those people who don't qualify, the rule hurdle for Social Security survivor's benefits will make life a lot harder, and most cases impacted by the work experience requirements look a lot like this family.

The Koran, the Torah and the Christian Bible both say that we have a duty to care for widows and orphans. The Social Security system and other parts of the social safety net in the United States usually does so. But, in a handful of cases very much like this one, it makes a heartless exception to the rule that makes no sense.


Anonymous said...

You look to Social Security for the first line of defense. As a Catholic libertarian, I look to it as the last.

The first is prevention. They got pregnant before they got married. In contrast, as soon as I got married, I purchased life insurance knowing that I wouldn't know for sure when my wife would get pregnant thereafter.

The second line of defense is the family. It is typical for mothers with children born out of wedlock to move in with the mother's parents. The combination of conceived out of wedlock and lack of life insurance puts this in a similar circumstance.

The third line of defense is private charity.

The fourth line of defense is government assistance at the state level. The Catholic Church prescribes state help as a last resort.

The fifth line of defense, which is unconstitutional and which I include only for completeness, is government assistance at the federal level. Such assistance, including Social Security, is not in the purview of the federal government according to the Constitution. If there is a vast wealth imbalance from one state to the next and there needs to be a mechanism to even this out, then states can enter into compacts with other states on a peering basis.

That Social Security is at the federal level goes right to the heart of your complaint about it -- it's impersonal and has universal rules that leaves out edge cases such as the one you raised. The existence of the federal Social Security program discourages states and localities from having their own, more personal, plans tailored to local culture and conditions.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Been there, done that, it didn't work. Before we had Social Security, we had legions of destitute widows, orphans and elders. They were the poorest people in our society. Now, we have Social Security, and very few of them are in poverty.

Anonymous said...

The legions of destitute widows et al came from the Great Depression, which was caused by the unconstitutional Federal Reserve.

Anonymous said...

would your solution be to revamp social security to be more inclusive?

what would your ideal system be, seeing that you believe in some sort of moral/ethical obligation to provide care for people in need.

Anonymous said...

First, any sort of government assistance in the U.S. should be at the state level rather than the federal level.

Second, the concept of the government helping people save for retirement (including even for the wealthy) needs to go away completely. The regressive FICA tax needs to go away, and benefits to the wealthy need to go away.

Government should be a safety net only (not a financial planner for individuals), and not one so comprehensive that it clouds out family responsibility and private charities, which should be the primary safety nets.

Anonymous said...

but what happens when certain states are suffering economically,
like when big businesses abandon large areas, like what happened in michigan where they couldn't get the budget right and ended up shutting down for a brief but indicative spell?

How do you provide a safety net for citizens when whole states fail?

★~Foxy†igress~★ said...

Ya'll don't even have respect for what has happened to the lives of those who knew him.

Stop talking about government and politics for a minute. We all already know how 'jacked-up' the system is.

He was an amazing person and a very good friend to everyone. RIP Tim. MCL.