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Social Security and You: Paper Social Security Checks Still Out There

Tom Margenau on

President Donald Trump's ongoing battle with the U.S. Postal Service and its funding has a small fraction of elderly Social Security recipients worried that there may be future disruptions to the delivery of their Social Security checks.

"Wait a minute!" I can hear many of you saying. "What do you mean by 'delivery' of their checks. Doesn't everybody get their Social Security benefits by direct deposit nowadays?" Well, actually, no. And therein lies a story.

Direct deposit and other forms of electronic banking are so commonplace today that most of us hardly give the process a second thought. But more than a few of us are old enough to remember a time when all of this was a "new fangled technology" that we were not entirely sure we could trust.

I think back to my early days working for the Social Security Administration. Like all federal employees, we got a paycheck every two weeks. And for the first dozen or so years of my career, it was indeed a paycheck in the form of a paper check.

It was back in the very early 1980s that the SSA finally got around to sending our bimonthly salary to us via direct deposit. And I clearly remember more than a little anxiety when that happened. I was working in the local Social Security office in Boise, Idaho, at the time. On payday, a couple of my co-workers and I used to enjoy our twice-monthly stroll to the local bank. (That was primarily because the Boise Ballet Co., with huge street-side windows, was right next to the bank. After depositing our checks in the bank, we would go next store and stare through those big windows at the beautiful ballerinas like little boys with their noses pressed against the glass front of a candy store! Gosh, I loved going to cash my paycheck! But I digress!)

Anyway, this direct deposit stuff was new. And for the first couple of months after it started, I would very carefully check my bank account every two weeks to make sure that the mysterious process worked and my money really was there. Of course, over time, I (and millions of other people) learned that direct deposit was reliable and dependable.

 

Fast-forward a number of years later and the SSA, working with the Treasury Department, decided that all new Social Security claimants would be required to use direct deposit. And at the same time, they offered a direct deposit option to all existing Social Security beneficiaries.

So, why didn't they force it on everybody? After all, it's simple and efficient. And it saves money. It costs almost nothing to push a button and have your money deposited into your bank account. But all the costs involved in printing, handling and mailing a paper check come out to about 50 cents each. Multiply that by millions of Social Security beneficiaries and you can see why the government was encouraging direct deposit.

But one of the main reasons why direct deposit wasn't forced on everyone was that studies showed there was a hardcore group of people out there, mostly very old senior citizens, who just didn't trust the process. They either didn't like banks or they just were not comfortable with the idea of electronic money. They liked to see and feel that paper Social Security check in their hands every month.

You can still find some of these people. I do -- every time I go to the grocery store. It always seems that I get stuck in the checkout line where there is a little old lady in front of me who is writing a check for her groceries. I mean, come on! Who writes checks for groceries anymore?

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