Last Wednesday, I encountered American bureaucracy on the eighth floor of 190 East 5th Street in downtown St. Paul—the offices of the Social Security Administration. I walked into the office to find a confirmation of the limits to what government can accomplish.
The atmosphere of the room was chilling. The benches were covered with hunched or slouching bodies, but not a single employee could be seen. The "receptionist" was a touch screen computer console, which gave each person a number after they had entered every last piece of personal information except for their favorite flavor of ice cream. Television screens and an unseen speaker system informed each number when they were to be serviced, and called them to a service window or booth. The walls were white under the glare of fluorescent lights. All that caught the eye were the brightly colored posters of very happy and healthy people who bore no resemblance to the persons sitting about me.
At first I thought that all the employees were missing. I was wrong, however. Hidden in a corner of the room was a security guard. I've heard that smiling takes fewer muscles than frowning, but this gentleman seemed intent on giving his face a thoroughly exhausting workout.
Conspicuously absent were the bright-eyed liberals who praised government social programs in my undergraduate classes. When I was a young liberal, I, too, rightly acknowledged that caring for the poor is a good thing. Now, as a young conservative, I realize why it is so important for the government to stay out of helping the poor as much as possible.
This room is the true face of the Social Security Program. Here the government has no face, and the people have no names.
Despite the agony of waiting, we never accomplished the purpose of our visit. We were attempting to change the official address of my Uncle Tom (not his real name) who moved from "independent living" to "assisted living" last January. In the space of an hour, with the help of two SSA employees, we were told that they could not change his address in the Social Security database (but isn't that database the main object of their work, more-or-less?). Amusingly, just before our visit to the eighth floor, we stopped to see Uncle Tom, who serenely looked at me on our walk and asked: "John, I know I am dumb, but is this Hazel Ridge?" "No, Uncle Tom," I replied. "This is Highland Chateau." He waved a hand and giggled to himself.
That's the world of American bureaucracy for you. Neither the Social Security Administration, nor my 94-year-old great uncle, have the slightest clue that he has changed his address, despite our repeated efforts to inform them both. At least my great uncle still has a twinkle in his eye and his humanity, which is more than I can say for the Social Security Administration.