Seniors Wary as Social Security Is Set to Go Digital

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Seniors constitute 17 percent of New York City’s population. Brooklyn, which is home to 30 percent of the city’s elderly population, will be hit hardest. Over 10,000 of those seniors reside in Bed-Stuy. However 3,500 of them have yet to sign up for direct deposit, according to Social Security agents in the neighborhood.

Social Security checks are about to go digital.

Seniors discuss social security going digital March 1. Photo By Tanay Warerkar

Seniors discuss social security going digital March 1. Photo By Tanay Warerkar

Seniors, who constitute 17 percent of New York City’s population, will bear the brunt of this switch, set to go into effect March 1. Brooklyn, which is home to 30 percent of the city’s elderly population, will be hit hardest. Over 10,000 of those seniors reside in Bed-Stuy. However, 3,500 of them have yet to sign up for direct deposit, according to Social Security agents in the neighborhood.

“My social security checks are going online,” said Dorothy McMens, 80, in astonishment, as she got the news at lunch at the Wayside Tompkins Senior Center, in Bed-Stuy. “I don’t know anything about computers. How are they going to get my money to me now?”

The U.S. Department of the Treasury is requiring everyone who gets federal benefit payments by paper checks to switch to an electronic mode of payment. Seniors now have two options to deal with the oncoming complication. They can either sign up for direct deposit payments with their local banks or credit unions or receive the Treasury Department mandated DirectExpress debit card.

If they fail to do so, they will receive cards in the mail anyway.

The move is expected to save the Treasury $1 billion over the next ten years. It will help avoid problems like the more than 540,000 social security and supplemental security income checks that were reported stolen or lost in 2010, according to the Treasury.

Those with direct deposit may have avoided the scramble, but for those who are dependent on the card, it comes with a catch. While the first transaction on the card each month is free, the subsequent transactions cost 90 cents each.

“For a large number of seniors, it is going to be a surprise to receive a debit card in the mail,” said Aysu Kirac, 30, program manager at The Coalition for the improvement of Bed-Stuy, a community-based organization that is working with the Brooklyn Public Library to help seniors make the transition in Bed-Stuy, which has one of the highest concentration of seniors in the city. “We want to ensure seniors to continue to feel safe despite the change.”

Social security checks are the major source of income for most seniors, according to the Social Security Administration. Nine out of ten seniors aged 65 and older receive social security benefits, and they represent about 39 percent of the income of the elderly.

The main office of the Brooklyn Public Library, along with eight of its branches located in areas with high concentrations of seniors, has been offering free computer classes three times a week to train them in online banking, direct deposit, and the usage of debit cards at ATMs.

“It is one thing to sign up for direct deposit, but it is a whole other thing to know how to use it,” said Judy Kamilhor, coordinator of digital literacy outreach, at the Brooklyn Public Library. “A lot of these seniors already have direct deposit, but they still make phone calls to pay their bills because they don’t know how to use it.”

Kamilhor said she made the case to seniors that it was less risky to conduct banking online as it removed the problems of mugging, losing mail, and dealing with corrupt employees at banks.

“Once you make the seniors realize how much money it is saving the treasury, they are more open to the idea,” said Kamilhor. “It is easier because it means they don’t have to take the trip to the bank each month. And many of them have actually bought computers since we started offering the classes.”

One of the first classes the Library offered was at the Wayside Tompkins Park Senior Center in Bed-Stuy, in December. The meeting attracted 60 seniors.

“If the mailman gets robbed, I don’t have to wait another month to get my check,” said Essie Carolina, 70, who switched to direct deposit from paper checks. “It is the best thing that has happened to me in a while.”

With just a week left to the deadline, organizations like the Brooklyn Public Library, and CIBS, are making a mad dash to ensure every senior is made aware of the change.

Next week, seven branches of the Library will be conducting classes, everyday, for seniors to understand the GoDirect procedure.

“Seniors realize that if they’re not online they miss out on a lot of things,” said Kamilhor. “Their kids and grandkids mostly communicate via facebook and twitter, and because they want to keep in touch with them, they feel more excited to learn.”

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3 Responses to “Seniors Wary as Social Security Is Set to Go Digital”

  1. Bob
    February 22, 2013 at 8:09 AM #

    Your story is wrong! Debit cards will NOT be sent to those who do not switch. Walt Henderson from the GoDirect campaign has made it clear that checks will continue to be mailed because Treasury doesn’t have the authority to sign people up for electronic payment. Only the benefit recipient can do that. And they’re not going to stop sending benefits, either. Don’t just look at the website; talk to the man! He’s been quoted all over the country that the checks will continue to be mailed—although Treasury is going to step up the pressure on those who don’t switch, to try to get them to do so.

  2. Tanay
    February 22, 2013 at 4:02 PM #

    Bob, I appreciate your taking the time to read the story, but I have got the information directly from the Treasury’s press office. Debit cards WILL IN FACT be sent to individuals who cannot show they have a disability or were born on or before 1925. Only those people are exempt from receiving the debit cards.

  3. Judy Kamilhor
    March 6, 2013 at 3:06 PM #

    Thank you for publishing this story to let people know about the change in the way benefits are being distributed, and the role of the Coalition for the Improvement of Bedford-Stuyvesant (CIBS) and the Brooklyn Public Library in getting the word out.

    Just to clarify, we offer three computer classes per week at the Bushwick, Brownsville, DeKalb, Macon, Marcy, Saratoga, Stone Avenue and Washington Irving libraries as part of the New York City Connected Communities grant, funded by NYC’s Department of Information Technology and Telecommunications and the US Department of Commerce as part of the BTOP grant.

    We teach a wide variety of computer topics, not just online banking. We have focused on the Social Security switch recently, but we have a larger mission of improving digital literacy and job readiness in the Bushwick, Bedford-Stuyvesant and Brownsville communities.

    Judy Kamilhor
    Coordinator of Digital Literacy Outreach
    Brooklyn Public Library

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