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No Money, No Lawyer, No Justice

  June 22, 2020 | By Kathryn Joyce, The New Republic

In 1954, Kevin Green got his Social Security card and started picking cotton for $3 per hundred pounds in a tiny agricultural town in California’s Central Valley. He was five years old. One of seven children, he used the money to buy school supplies. He kept working—and paying into the Social Security system—through high school, then beyond:  for Douglas Aircraft, at a telephone company warehouse, as a messenger at the UCLA hospital. In 1969, he was drafted, and spent four years flying in and out of Vietnam as a cargo plane loadmaster, balancing the weight of tanks and helicopters going in and cadavers coming out. After his discharge, he worked truck routes around the Bay Area for nearly 25 years, delivering beer, then paper products. One afternoon in 1997, while loading a hand truck for his last stop of the day, he stepped onto an uneven curb and fell, injuring his neck and back and shattering his ankle and foot.

In the years afterward, Green underwent repeated surgeries, watched his marriage fall apart amid the stresses of disability and unemployment, and endured regular epidural drips and shots to mitigate the nerve damage that kept him up at night and made his feet burn. But he made a new life. He found an apartment in Oakland; he joined a Bible study group. He was able to live, very modestly, on the $1,269 he received each month from Social Security Disability Insurance—money he stretched to cover his rent, utilities, car insurance, food, and medicine.

One Friday in August 2017, Green, who is now a soft-spoken 70-year-old and not used to talking about himself, received a letter from the Social Security Administration stating that the next month’s check would be withheld because of an alleged overpayment. The notice—only the second communication he’d received from SSA in a decade—didn’t explain the overpayment or when it was made. On Monday, Green rushed to the local SSA office to ask what it all meant. Clerks sent him to another branch, where he was told he’d been overpaid by $12,000 some 10 or 12 years before. If he wanted copies of the records proving it, he’d have to pay for them to be mailed; if he didn’t want his check withheld, he’d have to apply for a waiver. “Other than that,” he said, “they wouldn’t tell me anything.”

Green, who asked that his real name not be used for fear of retaliation, was bewildered. Ever since he’d qualified for disability insurance—the type of Social Security support dependent on your prior work contributions—he’d been vigilant about following the rules. In his community, people knew all too well that when a mistake happens, it’s your fault, even when it’s not. After his accident, he’d paid a lawyer to ensure that his disability application was done correctly. When his son graduated from high school, he immediately told SSA so it would stop sending the additional payments that minor children of parents on disability may qualify for. He kept every piece of mail the agency sent, and forwarded letters from workers’ comp to the SSA so it could offset his payments accordingly. Even when his workers’ comp subsidy was later reduced, entitling him to higher disability payments, he didn’t ask for the money, figuring he’d rather SSA owe him than the other way around. “I swear, this is the main thing I kept straight,” he told me. “I knew what could happen, and it happened anyway.”

For four months, Green tried to make sense of the claim on his own, but everything he learned seemed incomplete or contradictory. The alleged overpayment might have concerned workers’ comp, or income his ex-wife made after she and Green separated, or the payments to their son. No one could say for sure. What was certain was how losing the check would affect him. It was easy to imagine the calamitous spiral of events—eviction, bankruptcy, destitution—that could land him among the Bay Area’s 30,000-person homeless population, sleeping in his car.

After Green reluctantly applied for a waiver, pending further investigation, SSA agreed to dock his check by only $200 a month, instead of withholding it all. But the shortfall still left him reliant on a credit card to meet his basic needs. Over the next two years, he amassed thousands of dollars in credit-card debt he stood little chance of repaying. And almost every month, he received more form letters warning him anew that his benefits were about to be cut.

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