Claiming Social Security: A Bureaucracy that Delivers

While an undergraduate at Harvard, for a semester or two I had a part-time job, which required me to get a Social Security number and to contribute. In addition, I was a faculty member at Northwestern University for a short time, and also contributed to Social Security. As I approached my mid-sixties, I wondered whether these contributions would entitle me to receive benefits.

I found the Office of International Operations on the Social Security website and, primarily out of curiosity, wrote to ask about eligibility. This led to a phone call and I was advised to apply as I was approaching my 66th birthday. I filed an application online: the form asked for a lot of information, but was relatively straight-forward. This led to another phone call, in which I learned that, under the ominous-sounding Canada-US Totalization Agreement, I would be eligible. The way the agreement applies to me is that my contributions to the Canada Pension Plan can be counted towards Social Security so that I am considered to have met the minimum requirement for contributing to Social Security (40 quarters) to qualify for a pension. I also discovered that my two dependent children may receive Social Security benefits between the ages of 12 and 18.

The total monthly benefit would come to approximately $250 US – not large, but not negligible.
The next step was authentication. The three of us had to visit a Social Security office in person with passports and birth certificates, and the children would then apply for Social Security cards. Rather than having to go to Buffalo, we were able to complete this step at the US Consulate in Toronto.
Meanwhile, the Social Security Administration had to contact the Canadian Government to receive a document called my Record of Employment. This step took approximately four months. I suspect that the Harper Government’s back-office budget cuts to balance the budget have reduced capacity for such transactions.

By October 2015, four months after my 66th birthday, payments have started to arrive by electronic transfer in my US dollar account at my bank here. The first transfer included back payments for the three previous months.

On reflection, this was an experience that involved a lot of transactions: phone calls, documents, emails, and an in-person visit. I doubt if the Social Security Administration would have contacted me at the outset, but once I contacted them, in every case, the people I dealt with were knowledgeable, helpful, professional, prompt, and courteous. I felt that the treatment I was getting from the Office of International Operations was no different than if I were a United States citizen applying at a local office. Mid-way through the process, one individual – Mr. Oliger Abdyli – became my “case worker,” and I’ll single him out for commendation.

Social Security is so complicated because it involves both pensions and social safety net provisions for senior citizens. In that it differs from the situation in Canada: here the pension is handled by the Canada Pension Plan, and social safety net through Old Age Security and the Guaranteed Income Supplement.
In an attempt to deal with the complexity of Social Security, economist Laurence Kotlikoff (a fellow student in the Harvard graduate program in Economics many years ago) and co-authors Phillip Moeller and Paul Solman this year published the book Get What’s Yours: The Secrets of Maxing out Your Social Security. Not surprisingly, it has become a major financial self-help bestseller. I looked it up online and can well understand how valuable it would be to readers. I did notice one reference to totalization agreements, but that reference did not cover the specifics of my rather unique situation.

My conclusion: yes, it’s complicated, but after I started the process, the people in the Social Security Administration whom I dealt with were all extremely helpful in guiding me through it. My family and I are now getting what we entitled to receive. This is definitely a bureaucracy that delivers.

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