Former repairman Bill Ricker lives in Hartford in an aging trailer. His annual income is $12,036 in Social Security benefits, which is the average amount paid to Maine’s elders.
He heats his home with kerosene, and last year spent $3,200 to stay warm. At last year’s prices, that’s more than 860 gallons of kerosene.
Even with $1,000 in heating assistance funds, the cost to heat Ricker’s home is more than a sixth of his annual income.
That is astonishing, but he has no choice.
He is entirely dependent on his Social Security benefits, and if the nation's social insurance fund collapses, he is ruined.
Ricker bought his trailer in the early 1980s for $7,000 after he became disabled at work, and he can’t afford to move or do much in the way of home repairs. He is too sick to work for extra cash, and his Social Security benefits are consumed by heating costs, rent for the lot where his trailer sits and basic costs of living, including prescription medicines.
He is the kind of American for whom this nation’s social insurance program was signed into law, but his life is one of daily struggle.
Especially when it’s cold outside.
Ricker, like so many other Mainers living in poverty, suffers from a variety of ailments that make getting around hard, and to think that this 74-year-old lugs 860 gallons of fuel from doorstep to heater — about 4 gallons a day — over the course of the heating season is just depressing.
In 1935, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, he acknowledged “we can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”
But, he said, “We have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”
That was the admirable aim of Social Security, and the continued mission of that administration is to “deliver Social Security services that meet the changing needs of the public.”
But does it do that?
The federal agency administers the Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, program, and Social Security retirement programs.
SSI is a need-based cash program for the disabled and blind; Social Security is essentially a retirement plan paid into by workers who then draw benefits upon retirement.
It would be nice to think that everyone who ever cashed an SSI check is deserving of the benefit, drawn on the payroll tax-funded Social Security Fund.
Nice, but naive.
SSI is designed for people with limited income and assets, and most people who apply for benefits are truly in need.
Too many, however, are not.
Go to any Maine Superior Court on a general plea hearing day and you’ll witness a line of defendants who are fined for their crimes but who cannot, they say, afford to pay the fine because they’re “on disability.”
So their fines are waived. Punishments erased.
These are people with enough ingenuity to get drugs and alcohol, and enough skill and time to break into our homes and steal our possessions, but they’re too disabled to work? Instead, they’re collecting SSI checks and pleading poverty.
So, while Bill Ricker — a former pastor — is living in genuine poverty, there is a constant parade of crooks and thieves moving through our courtrooms, existing on a social insurance program that they have not contributed to.
Talk about a scam.
We hear so much about saving Social Security. Maybe we should talk a little more about fixing it.
People like Bill Ricker depend on it.