En español | Q. I sometimes hear people talking about Social Security's "extra dimensions." What does this mean?
A. Over time, many people have wished that Social Security would become more user-friendly and quicker to provide its "customers" (you and me) with special services and work-arounds that respond to pressing needs or just make life a little easier. You can view extra dimensions as the agency's efforts to go the extra mile for its beneficiaries.
Many of these have drawn little attention. So let's consider a few.
The Compassionate Allowances List
Several years ago, it became apparent to Social Security officials that the long waiting time for decisions on disability applications was causing particular hardship for people who were seriously ill. So the agency established the Compassionate Allowances List, with the goal of swiftly granting disability status to people who suffer from any of the serious medical conditions on the list. Currently, there are 225 such conditions.
In putting together the list, Social Security held seven public hearings around the country to review the best available medical information on rare diseases, cancers, traumatic brain injury, stroke, early onset Alzheimer's disease and related dementias, schizophrenia, cardiovascular disease, multiple organ transplants and autoimmune diseases. Many medical and scientific experts provided input, including professionals at the National Institutes of Health.
The resulting fast-track list begins with acute leukemia and adrenal cancer and ends with X-linked myotublar myopath band Zellweger syndrome.
Social Security says that people who can show they suffer from any of these will get approval in a matter of weeks as opposed to months or even years.
International Social Security agreements
Many Americans work in foreign countries for part of their careers. At the same time, many foreign nationals work in the United States. Both groups have long faced problems of double payroll taxation of their wages and accumulation of too few credits in any country to qualify for benefits.
So Social Security has negotiated agreements with 25 foreign countries that have systems similar to Social Security. The agreements generally provide for workers to pay payroll taxes to only one country's system at a time. When retirement draws near, workers can pool the credits they've earned in more than one country. Social Security, for instance, will pay benefits to an American expatriate by recognizing credits that the person earned in the system of another country while working there.
See also: Six More Myths About Social Security
Help with managing your money
We're not all good at managing money. We may need help. So Social Security has created the Representative Payee Program. The objectives are simple: Match people who need help managing their finances with people who are willing and able to help them.
If you're concerned that someone you know has become incapable of managing or directing the management of his or her benefits, Social Security asks that you call 800-772-1213 (TTY 800-325-0778) to request an appointment to discuss your concerns.
Generally, Social Security looks for family members or friends to serve as representative payees. If such people aren't available, the agency works with qualified organizations such as social service agencies to provide people to serve as representative payees.
A payee takes charge of the benefits sent to another person by Social Security and manages the money for the needs of that person. It's a serious job that requires serious diligence: The payee must keep records and account for his or her actions by filing reports to Social Security.
If you need an interpreter
Like everyone else, people who do not speak English may need to talk to the staff at Social Security about benefits or other concerns. To address this, Social Security provides free interpretation services.
Languages that the agency can translate include Arabic, Armenian, Cambodian, Chinese, Farsi, French, Greek, Haitian Creole, Hmong, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Laotian, Portuguese, Polish, Russian, Somali, Spanish, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
To request an interpreter, call the agency at 800-772-1213. If you need service in Spanish, press 7 and a Spanish-speaking representative will come on the line.
If you speak another of the covered languages, you should remain silent during the various English voice automation prompts and wait for a representative to answer. That person will bring an interpreter on the line who can help you. If your business cannot be completed by phone, Social Security will make an appointment for you at a local office and arrange for an interpreter to be there at the time of your visit.
A number for a baby
Social Security enters our lives from almost the moment we are born. Indeed, for new parents, getting a Social Security number for a new baby should be at the top of the list of things to do right away. In many cases, the number can be requested at the hospital where the child was born at the same time as registration for a birth certificate. No need to wait on hold with Social Security's toll-free number, no need to trek down to the local office with the little one.
Your child will need a number down the road, of course, but getting one will allow you as parents to do certain things right away:
- Claim your child as a dependent on your income tax return.
- Open a bank account for your child.
- Buy savings bonds for your child.
- Obtain medical insurance coverage for your child.
- Apply for government services for your child.
- Help with naming the baby.
Finally, if parents are having trouble thinking of a name for the family's new member, Social Security can help. The agency offers a list of the most popular names for babies born each year. Emma, Olivia and Sophia were the most popular names for girls in 2014; Noah, Liam and Mason topped the list for boys.
Stan Hinden, a former columnist for the Washington Post, wrote How to Retire Happy: The 12 Most Important Decisions You Must Make Before You Retire. Have a question? Check out the Social Security Mailbox archive. If you don't find your answer there, send an email to the Social Security Mailbox.