After a good deal of embarrassing coverage, the Social Security Administration announced it's suspending its efforts to collect old debts—those stretching into that past, beyond 10 years—on April 14. The official statement from Carolyn W. Colvin (pictured at right), Acting Commissioner of Social Security, carefully stays clear of any mention that they were often trying to collect these debts from the next generation.
I have directed an immediate halt to further referrals under the Treasury Offset Program to recover debts owed to the agency that are 10 years old and older pending a thorough review of our responsibility and discretion under the current law to refer debt to the Treasury Department.
If any Social Security or Supplemental Security Income beneficiary believes they have been incorrectly assessed with an overpayment under this program, I encourage them to request an explanation or seek options to resolve the overpayment.
Controversy over the program swirled around both the age of the debts Social Security was trying to collect and the fact that it was putting the touch on people who were children when the debts were supposedly incurred by their parents and guardians.
People rarely keep documentation for decades on the off chance they may have to dispute future debt claims. And Social Security officials themselves admitted that they had no records of the alleged debts. They just wanted the money and were willing to take it.
Tapping the next generation for debts supposedly incurred by parents has been even more troubling to commentators, because it lies outside modern practice by demanding that people take responsibility for debts in which they have no say. Social Security claimed the modern generation benefited as children from overpaid public assistance and therefore personally owed the money.
Social Security officials are apparently surprised that anybody found this objectionable.
In an email, Social Security spokesman Mark Hinkle said, "We want to assure the public that we do not seek restitution through tax refund offset in cases when the debt in question was established prior to the debtor turning 18 years of age." He added, "Also, we do not use tax refund offset to collect the debt of a person's relative. We only use it to collect the overpaid benefits the person received for himself or herself."
But that seems to have been Social Security's claim along, subject to novel interpretation. Which means some variant may well return once the fuss dies down.