In harm’s way: Social security benefits elude South Dallas residents with blocked debit cards

By |Published On: September 1, 2023|Categories: South Dallas|

Benny Cooper wipes the sweat off from his forehead. The 62-year-old has been mowing lawns this morning in the Ideal neighborhood of South Dallas. He tugs his lawnmower behind him as he bikes to the next house.

Benny Cooper is making ends meet by mowing lawns because he hasn’t been able to access his social security money since April. Photo by Kazai Drew

Mowing lawns is his only source of income right now.

“It’s been stressful,” Cooper says, tears welling up in his eyes.

Cooper retired from working in landscaping last September, and immediately started collecting social security payments. Instead of receiving a monthly check in the mail from the government, Cooper’s federal benefits were automatically deposited to a prepaid debit card. 

The Direct Express Mastercard works like any other bank debit card. Cooper could access his $563 dollars a month by going to an ATM.

Direct Express debit cards are used by the federal government for people who don’t use banks. Photo Kazai Drew

Everything was working fine until Direct Express blocked his card in April.  Since then, he hasn’t been able to access his money. He says he has no idea what happened.

“It’s my retirement money and I can’t touch it,” Cooper says. “The system has got me locked out. They say I need a Texas ID. I need an original social security card.”

He calls the only phone number on the card once a day. He’s gone to the social security office on Malcolm X three times. No one there has been able to help him access his money.

Sherri Mixon, executive director at T.R. Hoover Community Development Center in the Bonton/Ideal neighborhood, says she saw Cooper mowing the lawn in the mid-afternoon heat. When she learned about his problem with Direct Express, she stopped everything to help him. 

This isn’t the first time she’s seen this problem in her neighborhood. She helped a woman in the same situation just days before meeting Cooper and learning about his dilemma.

“If it wasn’t her sharing her problem with others, I wouldn’t have known Benny needed me,” Mixon says, shaking her head.

According to the Treasury Department, the Direct Express Debit card is a way to get federal benefits without a bank account. Social Security, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Veterans, are required to receive payment electronically. The money is deposited directly to a bank or credit union account or added to a DirectExpress® prepaid debit card. 

Mixon has spent the last three weeks trying to help Cooper. She called Direct Express with Cooper. She also went to the social security office to show that he had proper documentation. Direct Express wanted Cooper to have an official identification card, original social security card, or a birth certificate. 

Mixon says it’s difficult for people in her community who may not have a driver’s license. The other woman Mixon helped was able to get her ID from the Stewpot. Mixon drove her to the social security office, and they called Direct Express together. That’s how she was finally able to access her funds.

Cooper has a valid Veteran’s ID. He served in the U.S. Army from 1979-1985. With the help of Mixon, he emailed Direct Express his Veteran’s ID card. However, he still can’t access his funds.

Cooper served in the U.S. Army from 1979-1985. His Veteran’s card is his primary form of identification. Photo by Sujata Dand

“What’s going on with folks who are sitting on this man’s funds?” Mixon asks. “You are wrong. This is a veteran. He’s worked his time. He’s done his service. You are wrong.”

We listened in last week when Cooper contacted Direct Express from Mixon’s office. Once he got a person on the line, he provided his social security number. 

The Direct Express representative then told Cooper that he needed to email an identification card with an image of himself. They needed the front and back of the card. Mixon intervened.

“We did that. We sent you a copy of the Veteran’s ID.”

The representative said it needed to be an original copy and not expired.

“It is [the original],” Mixon and Cooper said together. “And, it’s not expired.”

The representative said, “I don’t know why it got denied then. It sounds like you did everything right.”

“It’s depressing man,” Cooper responded. “It’s really depressing.”

The representative continued to find ways to verify Cooper’s information asking if he had a driver’s license. When Cooper said he didn’t, the representative said the fraud department does not have any control over the ID verification process. At this point, Cooper requested a supervisor.

Cooper is talking to a Direct Express representative on Thursday, August 24. Photo by Sujata Dand

The supervisor asked again about what identification Cooper had. Cooper repeated that he was a veteran and that he’d emailed a front and back copy of the ID to the Direct Express email. He also included the case number.

The supervisor said everything needed to be submitted in one email. Mixon said they sent the ID photos in two emails. The supervisor said that was a problem.

“It has to be the same email,” the supervisor said.

Mixon was irritated. 

“Sir, no one told us that. We’ve gone through it with you guys more times than we should.”

She reiterated that Cooper has sent in a valid ID that is not expired. 

When Dallas Free Press stepped in to ask if there was a place for Cooper to access exactly what he needed to submit to verify his identity, the Direct Express supervisor said he was not at liberty to provide that information for security reasons. He also said there was no other number to call for additional help within Direct Express.  

“We are just talking about a gentleman that has served his country and doesn’t have access to his funds,” Mixon said. “Is there anything that you can do today?”

At the end of a 27-minute call, there was no resolution.

The supervisor said Cooper needed to submit the back and front of his Veteran’s ID in one email. After ending the call, Mixon did just that and included Cooper’s case number. The supervisor said they would get a response in 24-27 hours by email.  

The Inside Scoop:

We reached out to the South Dallas social security office on Malcolm X Blvd. to find out more about Mr. Cooper’s case. They had no one at that office that would speak to us. They directed us to the regional social security office on Young Street. The representative on the phone told us, it would be best for us to go to the location to find someone there to talk to us.

The questions that we still hope to answer: 

  • How many people in South Dallas receive social security payments? What percentage of them receive those payments through Direct Express?
  • Why was Mr. Cooper’s card blocked?

Later that evening, Mixon re-sent the email and included Cooper’s birth certificate.

“Just in case,” Mixon said.  

Cooper has yet to receive a response.

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About the Author: Sujata Dand

Sujata Dand is an award-winning journalist who is energized by change brought in communities in response to news stories. She lives in and has spent most of her reporting career in Dallas, with ample experience covering health care, education and public policy. “I think it’s important to elevate voices that are often ignored,” Dand says. “For me, that means meeting the people in our communities. We need to see people and listen to them. It’s often a huge act of courage for people to openly share their lives. So, I feel an enormous responsibility in making sure my stories are authentic and fair.” Dand worked at KERA for almost 10 years, where she produced several television documentaries, including “Life in the Balance: The Health Care Crisis in Texas” and “High School: The Best and the Rest.” She also headed the multimedia project “Boyfriends,” which examined the complex personal and cultural factors that contribute to the way adolescent girls form and maintain relationships. Her work has garnered several local Emmys and national awards including a Gracie for best reality program. Prior to her work with KERA, Sujata was a reporter and anchor at the CBS affiliate in Wichita Falls, Texas. She has worked as a freelance reporter for NPR and Dallas Morning News. Dand is a graduate of Trinity University in San Antonio.

Official Title:

Senior Editor and Reporter