Island Voices

Falling Through the Cracks – Part 1

By March Twisdale

In 2021, my husband and I began to prepare for his retirement, planned for March of 2023. Most of my husband’s friends and family had already retired. They’d had no trouble. We expected the same. Then, we tried to create an online Social Security account, and couldn’t get past the first screen.

My husband was born in Juarez, Mexico on a dirt floor in a very poor part of town. It was 1955, and he was the ninth of 13 children, two of whom had died in their toddler years. Eleven months later, the whole family moved to California where the children – as they eventually entered the public school system – were all given new names. María became Mary. Jaime became James. Raquel become Rachel. José became Joe. Such was the experience of young immigrants from south of the border.

José’s high school diploma was followed by naturalization, a Social Security number, and almost five years serving our nation, our society, and our fellow Americans in the Air Force. That service was followed by 43 years of full-time employment in the telecommunications industry, helping to manage, design, strategize, and create the modern cell phone system that we depend upon for almost everything. Having begun work as a child in the fields, José has been invested in this country, despite its human foibles and imperfections, for almost 70 years.

One would expect this to mean something. One might even expect loyalty. And that’s where our problems began this past April. With expectations. Because everyone we knew had an easy time with the Social Security Administration, we “expected” the same. Because we are law-abiding, hard-working, tax-paying, military-serving, and politically engaged citizens, we expected the system to work for us. More than that, I expected it to care. And it didn’t.

It wasn’t the waiting patiently part that was hard. It wasn’t the shock of being refused Social Security benefits by a federal government that claimed my husband wasn’t yet age 62, despite sending us Medicare enrollment paperwork for the past three years. It wasn’t the long hours spent standing outside in the cold, the dark, the rain, and the sleet, in hopes of getting a drop-in appointment (because appointments can’t be made in advance). None of that wore me down.

It wasn’t the ferry fees, the money spent on faxing endless letters to the SSA office, describing how I’d jumped through one hoop and then the next, and the next, and the next. None of that bothered me as much as the realization that my family had fallen through a crack. And, no one was coming to help us. Do our systems work? The answer to that question varies from person to person. No matter how nice, organized, patient, easy-going, and respectful I was … I was on my own. On my third visit, I was told, point-blank: “I don’t know how to help you. It can take years for the U.S. Embassy to deal with these things, and that’s your problem. No birth certificate, no retirement benefits.”

Those words left me breathless. What do you mean, my husband will be denied his retirement benefits? How could a man with a driver’s license, passport, naturalization papers, proof of military service, a high school diploma, and almost 50 years of faithfully paying taxes … be told no?

Back to that question: Do American social systems work? I have friends who love the Social Security system. Of course they do! The system worked for them. Seamlessly, easily, application filed, approval received, money in the bank … what’s not to love?

But for me and my husband? It almost failed us entirely. Making our answer to the question very different, yet equally accurate: “This system is unreliable, filled with dangerous cracks, and if you fall through, no one will help you.”

How did we overcome these challenges? Did I fly to Juarez? Did we hire an immigration lawyer? Did my sister-in-law save the day? Tune in next month for the rest of the story!

December 27, 2022

About Author

march March Twisdale has called Vashon Island home for nearly twenty years. A lifelong advocate of independent thought, March believes there are as many right choices as there are people in the world. She looks forward to bringing inspiring content to Vashon Loop readers, as she's done for eight years with her radio show - Prose, Poetry & Purpose. Find her on by searching "Our Thoughts Matter."