The other day, I was wrapping up a speech to a group of senior citizens when an older gentleman asked me a question. Actually, it was part question and part commentary. Here's what he asked and said:
"When did Social Security start paying all these benefits to little kids? I was in the Social Security office the other day, and the waiting room had far more children than it did senior citizens. I think that's what's wrong with Social Security. If we stopped paying benefits to all these kids and took the program back to the way it was in the beginning – something only for seniors – then Social Security would have no problems!"
Actually, I've heard similar questions and comments many times before, so I was ready with some answers.
First, I explained that the majority of those children he saw in the waiting room probably were not there to apply for benefits. A parent or parents had brought them in to get a new or replacement Social Security card. Children need Social Security numbers for a variety of reasons. The most important is so that the parents can claim the child as an exemption on their tax return. Because we have worked out agreements with most hospitals and bureaus of vital statistics in the country, many parents are able to apply for a baby's Social Security number shortly after birth while mom is still in the hospital. Others complete the process by phone and mail by calling 1-800-772-1213. But some parents either have to, or choose to, get a Social Security number for their child in person at a local Social Security office. They can speed up the process by downloading the application form and instructions at www.socialsecurity.gov/online/ss-5.html.
Second, I explained that some children do qualify for Social Security benefits and that this is nothing new. Social Security has paid benefits to the minor children of retired and deceased workers since 1940 and to the minor children of disabled workers since 1958. Those benefits generally continue until the child reaches age 18 (or 19 if still in high school). If the child is disabled, those benefits can even continue into his or her adult years.
Finally, I explained that some of those children he saw in the waiting room might have been there to apply for Supplemental Security Income disability benefits. Children with disabilities whose parents have limited means might qualify for monthly benefits under this needs-based program that is run by the Social Security Administration. And I also stressed that SSI payments are financed by general tax revenues, not by Social Security taxes.
So there are a variety of reasons you might find a child in a Social Security office waiting room. To learn more about Social Security numbers and children, read our publication, Social Security Numbers for Children at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10023.html. To learn more about benefits for children, read our publication, Social Security: Benefits for Children with Disabilities, at www.socialsecurity.gov/pubs/10026.html.
(Gene Moreno is district manager of the Social Security Administration office in Prescott.)