Have illegal immigrants made a billion dollars off Social Security!?! (Spoiler: No.)

Juan Q. Public?

Juan Q. Public?

You may have read or heard about this Fox News story, which has been making the rounds in the usual places. (Yes, it's Facebook. It's always Facebook.) According to the headline, the federal government "paid $1 billion in Social Security benefits to individuals without a SSN."

If you're like me, you're probably thinking, Wait, "individuals without a SSN" sounds like illegal immigrants. How could illegal immigrants be awarded Social Security benefits?

Well, they're not.

The story is based on on an audit conducted by the Social Security Administration's Inspector General, which revealed that the funds in question were paid to "representative payees" (people who receive and manage Social Security funds for the benefit of a person who is incapable of managing finances on their own). The Social Security Administration is supposed to keep either a representative payee's Social Security number or, if the person doesn't have an SSN, their application, on file, but the Inspector General found that the SSA was not doing an adequate job maintaining those records.

What's the difference?

A representative payee is legally required to use the funds for the sole benefit of the Social Security beneficiary. So economically, a representative payee receives no personal benefit at all.

The Fox News story somehow fails to mention this fact. It uses the term "representative payee" several times, but neglects to explain what it means. So to a casual reader (or anyone who isn't fascinated by the world of Social Security disbursement regulation), "Feds paid $1 billion in Social Security benefits to individuals without a SSN" sounds a heck of a lot scarier than it actually is.

The bottom line is that the article, while technically accurate, is worded in a way that ensures that most readers will get the wrong impression. As for why Fox News would do such a thing--well, to borrow a phrase: we report, you decide.

So how hard is it, really, to get disability benefits?

Social Security is there for Americans who have earned it and are either disabled or ready to retire. Many people seem to think that the hardest thing about getting disability is deciding which condition to fake and how to spend your time on easy street. In reality, there is an entire system in place to determine whether a person is truly disabled. You can learn more about the process here. If you think you may qualify, give us a call. We'd be glad to talk you through your options.