Study in Contrasts

In the last week I have endeavored to get a Social Security Number for Kimberly because I really want to use her on our taxes. My first thought was to go to the Social Security office nearest to my work on my lunch hour. Being the savvy frequenter of bureaucratic offices, I knew to avoid the normal lunch hour so I went at 10:30 a.m.

Unfortunately, I forgot that the office nearest to my work (7th Street and I-10) was probably also the nearest to one of the most blighted areas of Phoenix. The wait, which I discovered only after about 25 minutes there, was approximately three hours and it looked like the people there had been there since the office’s opening.

Today, I decided to go to the office nearest my home (Tatum and Greenway, roughly) on my lunch hour since I was working from home. Sure enough, I got A121 and they were on A117 when I arrived!

Going to these two different offices provided an interesting contrast, as well. The offices themselves couldn’t have been more different: the one in the poorer section of town had standard-issue plastic chairs, stand-offish windows, and frazzled looking employees whereas the one up by me was spacious with padded leather (and some vinyl for capacity, I suppose) chairs and arm rests, more leather chairs at each window, and employees that looked comfortable. The office near my work had every conceivable form out and available for the patrons to complete, while the one near my home had only friendly brochures available so that every patron had to visit a receptionist and the forms were completed by the staff. Also, the greeting security guard at the poorer office let people know that their vehicles would be towed if they parked in the employee parking—ticketing would be skipped—while the security guard at the other location actually acted as a greeter, directing traffic and welcoming patrons.

The clientele were also markedly different. The other office gave off an odor due to the sea of people in varying states of hygiene. The nice office was being frequented by people you see in malls with a small contingent of the trailer park residents. The people in the nicer office conversed with people while in line, while the poor seemed like islands in the welfare system. Finally, the only language other than English I heard at the office near my home was Spanish while the other office was polyglot.

These are the facts that I observed. The most striking thing to me was that the Social Security Administration would build such wildly different experiences. It’s as if they expected that the poor wouldn’t care or know any better, so why go through the effort of gussying up the place. I expected to have a very similar atmosphere (albeit much less busy) at a federal agency dedicated to welfare state ideals of egalitarianism. I guess not.

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