A TGB EXTRA: John Oliver on the Democratic Convention

Presidential Politics for Elders Again

A week ago, I wrote about the Republican Convention in general (dark, frightening and totalitarian) and their platform position on Social Security in particular (privatize it).

Last week's Democratic Convention was an entirely different animal, upbeat, encouraging and democratic emphasizing what we the people can accomplish together.

Plenty of pundits since then have tried to criticize the Democrats' gathering but it's been a stretch for them. And in contrast to the Republicans, here is the Democratic Party Platform [pdf] position (in part) on Social Security.

I have quoted more than I usually do but it's easy to read and in line what we have discussed and supported at this blog for a long time:

”We will fight every effort to cut, privatize, or weaken Social Security, including attempts to raise the retirement age, diminish benefits by cutting cost of living adjustments, or reducing earned benefits.

“Democrats will expand Social Security so that every American can retire with dignity and respect, including women who are widowed or took time out of the workforce to care for their children, aging parents, or ailing family members.

“The Democratic Party recognizes that the way Social Security cost of living adjustments are calculated may not always reflect the spending patterns of seniors, particularly the disproportionate amount they spend on health care expenses. We are committed to exploring alternatives that could better and more equitably serve seniors.

"We will make sure Social Security’s guaranteed benefits continue for generations to come by asking those at the top to pay more, and will achieve this goal by taxing some of the income of people above $250,000.

"The Democratic Party is also committed to providing all necessary financial support for the Social Security Administration so that it can provide timely benefits and high quality service for those it serves.”

All good. Now we must hold Congress and the new president to doing this.

Meanwhile, some bad news about Social Security.

As I was making notes for this post last week, an email arrived from the Social Security Administration.

Before I quote it, you need to know that “My Social Security” is a personal online account you can create at the Social Security website to make it easy for you to order a replacement card, for example, get a benefit verification letter, change your address, start or change direct deposit and so on.

Here is the pertinent part of the email (emphasis is mine):

”Starting in August 2016, Social Security is adding a new step to protect your privacy as a my Social Security user. This new requirement is the result of an executive order for federal agencies to provide more secure authentication for their online services.

“Any agency that provides online access to a customer’s personal information must use multifactor authentication.

When you sign in at ssa.gov/myaccount with your username and password, we will ask you to add your text-enabled cell phone number.

“The purpose of providing your cell phone number is that, each time you log in to your account with your username and password, we will send you a one-time security code you must also enter to log in successfully to your account.”


This action will make My Social Security, which generally provides excellent service, unavailable to 73 percent of Social Security recipients because they do not have cellphones with text capability. Here is the chart from the most recent survey on smartphone ownership from the Pew Research Center published in April 2015:

Smartphone Ownership 2015

You saw that, right? Only 27 percent of people 65 older have smartphones and although that is a big increase from the previous survey when 18 percent of the age group owned smartphones, it makes using the Social Security website unavailable to way more than half the people who receive Social Security benefits.

There is a link in the email to the webpage with a list of other means to contact Social Security – telephone, email, snailmail or a bricks-and-mortar office. But that's not good enough.

As fate would have it, on the day that I received this announcement from Social Security, I got locked out of my online bank account and was directed to go through that same system of getting a one-time security code.

It took so long for the email with the code to arrive that the page where I was to copy the code timed out. I tried again with same result. Then I spent an hour and 20 minutes on the telephone while one of the bank's technology officers tried to get me back into my account.

If you have ever tried to telephone Social Security, you know why they developed the My Social Security website in the first place and I have no faith that their extra security measure will work any better than my bank's does.

Certainly, cybersecurity is important and moreso for Social Security numbers that can be used for identity theft. But there MUST be a better way than locking out the majority of people the agency exists to serve.

I couldn't find a better address for someone in charge at Social Security so I sent an email with a copy of the above to the SSA press office.

I sent another email to Senator Susan Collins, the chairman of the Senate Special Committee on Aging (there is no House counterpart) and to the ranking member, Senator Claire McCaskill.

You could do that too by following those links and using the senators' forms. If you want, copy and paste some of my post above. Or, check this page to see if a Committee member is your senator; hearing from a home-state constituent probably carries more weight.

If a Clinton administration were to make good on the Democratic platform's vision for Social Security, it would be a giant step forward for everyone's retirement now and in the future. Meanwhile, however, the requirement to own a smartphone to access your own Social Security information online is a step backwards.

UPDATE 9:40PDT: Because the bank I use has been sold, I need to update the routing number for the monthly direct deposit of my Social Security benefit. The new system is already in place at My Social Security and I do have a phone that accepts texts so I entered the number for the one-time code to be sent. The webpage told me to try back another time, my request could not be completed.


Without a doubt, that idea was hatched by people in their 20's & 30's. Why EVERYBODY they know has a smart phone. Everybody! They don't remember that Grandma doesn't.

This blindness happens in many areas. An example is the choice of colors on web pages which are lovely but don't have sufficient contrast for older eyeballs. Another example, instructions in mouse-sized font... telling you how to make the font larger.

And there are those of us who have NO cell phone. [And yes, we had one for almost five years and - thankfully - we got rid of it.]

This is a double edge sword.

We want to be treated as not needy and special or out of the loop but here we just feel into the hands of ...... a bit of reality?

A first rule in technical writing, information-giving, providing safety measures, etc. KNOW YOUR AUDIENCE. USA government often does well. They slipped up here. Ronni, nothing slips past your eagle eye. THANK YOU for calling out this good idea that went bad for want of user focus groups, etc., and for providing channels to be heard.

I have two website accounts that have used this procedure for years. Before I can see my account details, I am queried about what means should they contact me, I have choice: Land line, text, email, (forgot the 4th - not Pony Express).

A selection is made and my phone rings within seconds. A code is read to me - and I am on my way!

I feel safer knowing there is an extra layer of security.

I take your point, and I thank you for pointing this out. It would not hurt to take this to AARP as well as to Congress,

I do want to point out that text capable cell phones are not necessarily smart phones. Before 2012 I owned a basic cell phone that could text. There are probably quite a few people who own simple cell phones that are not smart phones, and which have texting capabilities.

I do agree that this is going to be too hard for many of the elderly to do though. What an odd requirement!

Trudi - I loved your comment ! :-))

Ronni - Thanks again for your informative article.
TGB is filled with valuable information.


Thanks for your great head's up on the S.S. change coming.
I'm 70 and here's what I have done. It's cheap and works. Go to "Trac-Phone.com".
There buy a reconditioned half track..half smartphone.
I got one for $19. It has NO monthly bill. You buy time and data as needed. This device has "texting" capability. I spend about $50 a year on time and data depending on how much I use.

Hope this helps,

Great info today from you Ronni & all of the above. Have gone thru something similar when my local bank changed hands. Botched so badly that many, many have changed & joined the local credit union which bends over backwards to accommodate everyone especially elders. Somehow we have to storm congress & the "powers" that be to make our voices heard.

And yes I have a cell/trac phone, but it is for emergencies only & only certain people have the number. Dee

My flip phone has text capability, and all incoming texts are free. It doesn't take a "smart phone." However, it's another step. Do you suppose that eventually it will all come back to paper?

I detest multifactor authentication and its assumption in its infancy that everyone had a cellphone and kept it with them at all times. At least now most systems will offer you a choice of how to receive your code (cell or regular phone, email, etc.) I suppose we should be grateful that at least we have online access and no longer have to go stand in line at some brick-and-mortar office to conduct our business.

My problem is that I live in a area with poor cell service. I wasn't able to log in to my bank with this feature, until I changed the option to call an automated service that gave me the pin number to log in.

Tangential reaction from somebody almost 80 whose demographics bely that fact: Don't even get me started on getting locked out of my bank's website! Drives me nuts. And it's not that rare (what, I dunno, maybe once every month or two, but--c'mon, people! We wanna pay our bills here!).

No doubt, if we don't blow ourselves up in the next century, the technology will become a lot more user-friendly . . .

There is a reason smart phone use in rural areas is only 52% in the chart above!
As Fred notes, there ARE places with poor ( I'd add non-existent ) cell phone service. There are places without wifi, and places without reliable internet access. Not to mention people for whom buying & using devices and services is all but impossible, for a multitude of reasons. We need to remind our representatives that the digital divide is real.

I got the email telling me of this and thought it was a scam. I didn't click on the link and deleted the email. I cannot see why I should give the social security administration my cell phone number. I've never used My Social Security so don't feel like I'm going to miss anything.

I don't have a cell phone as I have trouble hearing on them and texting is difficult enough with bad vision and arthritic hands that a smart phone is a waste of money for many elders.

Not only does my bank ask for my cell number as added security, my e-mail server has done so for a long time. When I tried reaching a web site that wanted my cell phone number I tried leaving that blank. It came back with the request circled in red. I tried using my land line number and it came back with an error on the phone number, so I got disgusted and typed in 520-000-0000 and got through. Go figure.

The My Social Security website has an explanation of and a rationale for their adoption of the text code layer. You just have to dig deep to learn that ....

"We understand that not everyone may have a cell phone or cell service. However, research shows that an overwhelming majority of American adults have cell phones and use them for texting. This is our first step in adding security, and we expect future enhancements will provide other options."

Yes, 64% of all adults might be an overwhelming majority to some, but this obviously does not apply to their 65+ customers at 27%.

This underwhelming information came at the expense of having my account access frozen after 3 unsuccessful attempts to log in with the exact information I carefuly wrote down after the last time I tangled with them . So I called the 800 number and, after navigating the options menu was told I had a 50 min. wait to speak with someone. No offer was made to take my numbner and call me back. Sometimes I think the Republicans have a point about big gov't.

Ps @ Darlene..... Your ingenious circumventing of the bank's website inspired me to see what creative approach I could work on the Soc. Sec. website. They'd locked me out, so I went into my browsing history, found the original log in page, opened it and entered my user name and clicked "forgot" password. It worked and I was able to change my pwd and enter my cell phone number. Thanks for the inspiration. We are wiley old foxes, eh?

I don't have a cell phone and rarely use my landline. I have a hearing disability -- I can hear certain tones perfectly fine, but some tones (high-pitched or low-pitched) are gibberish to me. I cannot afford hearing aids. I can't afford a cell phone either unless I get rid of the landline and I can't do that since it's bundled with my television and computer.

So I guess I'll never again be talking to a Social Security person in this lifetime.

It reminds me of when I was still working and the company installed voice mail. What it meant for many of my coworkers is that they never again had to answer their phone -- at least that's how they used it. If someone complained that they couldn't reach so-and-so, they'd just blame it on the system and they were instantly off the hook.

Banks installed ATMs so they wouldn't have to deal with customers and could get rid of most of their tellers, while telling us the ATMs would "stream-line" service. Companies installed voice mail so they wouldn't have to pay anyone to answer the phones, all the while saying what a "help" it would be for their customers. What a laugh. Anyone who has been entrapped in "voice-mail jail" knows how frustrating it is to tell your problem to ten different people, all of whom would transfer you to another department without staying on the line so you wouldn't have to go through the whole rigmarole with each different person. That used to be standard telephone etiquette when I first started working (back in the dark ages). Now they're all happy to drop you like a hot potato rather than help you to navigate the waters of their unique voice-mail system. If all systems worked the same it might not be so bad, but every company has its own system with its own idiosyncrasies.

I'll be glad to leave this life and never have to deal with tech systems that were installed before all the glitches and bugs were worked out. And every governmental department seems to have their own brand of mayhem.

I haven't been on SS site for years. I went to local SS office when we moved to change addresses. Guess I'm spoiled, always get great service from kind people.

But I am curious, do I need to visit SS website?

BTW, for those who don't want to give their cell phone number to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who asks for it, set up a Google Voice account and give them THAT number. All your messages will go there. You can also set it to send you an email informing you of the call. You can receive either text or voice messages this way.

When I got the SSA's email, I followed the instructions but, like others, received the message "your request cannot be processed at this time". At that point I thought "OMG, I've fallen for an elder scam". I'm relieved to find that's not the case thanks to Ronni's post. However, this new requirement will most certainly act as a barrier to access for a lot of SS recipients. I oppose it absolutely, and I intend to contact the officials identified. I'm all for security but not at the expense of essentially locking out those who are most in need of a simple, reliable mode of access.

I'm one of the 27% of 65+ people who has a smartphone. I text sometimes, but it's not my preferred method of communication, so I'll probably simply forego using the SSA website. I didn't use My SS often, but it was very quick and convenient when I did. It was truly a useful government service in its original format. The "other ways to contact" the SSA are a bad joke as far as I'm concerned, so I hope I never have a problem that would require me to do so. (I did not appreciate the short timeline either and, if there was a window for public input prior to implementing this new "improvement", I missed it.)

Class of 65, you hit the nail squarely on the head. I would rather eat ground glass than get myself entangled in the spider web of a voice-activated system, which is what most companies use now. Our only defense, and I use it often, is to hit the "0" or sometimes "00" to get connected to a human. That doesn't always work, but if you scream enough, it works and I'm not averse to screaming to get to a solution that would otherwise never happen. I recall having a horrible time disentangling a problem about payment for a prescription through a mail system. I was at my wit's end because even with humans involved, I was still encountering numerous transfers and they were all in separate departments, meaning they seemingly didn't speak the same language. Finally I got one intelligent representative who resolved to stay on the line with me and with the other rep. Just like that, with three humans talking, the problem was resolved. Halleluia! It takes willing humans to solve problems, but getting them, literally, on the same line is sometimes almost impossible.

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