The Social Security Act turns 65 this year, but instead of retiring to greener pastures, its going to be more active than ever.
Thats because the numbers created by the Social Security Act do a lot more than track the "old-age benefits" they were originally created for. Today, theyre requested when an individual opens a bank account or applies for a credit card, and hospitals ask for them when patients check in. In essence, if not in name, Social Security numbers now serve as a national identification.
Not everyone is pleased with that chain of events. In January, Michigan filed a lawsuit against the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) in an effort to overturn a federal law that would force the state to collect Social Security numbers from its citizens when they apply for or renew drivers licenses. Failure to do so would result in the loss of federal funds for child support.
"The issue of personal privacy has been a priority of Secretary of State Candice Miller since she walked in the door," said Elizabeth D. Boyd, communications director for Miller. Last June, for example, Michigan passed a law proposed by Miller that banned the sale of citizen information for marketing and solicitation purposes, a practice that had been legal since 1919.
"When faced with a federal requirement that has nothing to do with our operation, that mandates that we collect Social Security numbers from nearly seven million people who dont necessarily owe child support -- [Miller] finds that an affront to personal privacy," said Boyd. "And she has said that she will exhaust all of her legal remedies to fight that requirement."
The requirement stems from the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 (PRWORA), which was part of that years larger welfare reform efforts. In response to a child-support enforcement caseload volume that had grown 180 percent between 1980 and 1992, the federal government decided to take advantage of the ubiquity of Social Security numbers and require that states collect them from anyone applying for or renewing any professional, occupational, marriage or commercial drivers license among other forms. In 1997 all drivers license applicants were included.
By collecting Social Security numbers, the federal government thought that it could work more effectively with the states to track down deadbeat dads. "In our caseload of 16 million to 17 million, about 30 percent of it is interstate," said David Siegel, spokesperson for the federal Office of Child Support Enforcement (OCSE) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
"[According to the Census Bureau] between 16 percent and 18 percent of Americans move every year, irrespective of owing child support, so that 30 percent is not a static number. Over time, it could be that just about all cases are interstate ... By having [a Social Security number] as a case number, it provides the ability for state and federal child-support agencies to be more effective and efficient in locating parents who may owe child-support or have paternity needs to be established."
National child support collections have increased 50 percent since the passing of the PRWORA, from $12 billion in 1996 to $18 billion in 2000. Data from the Census Bureau indicates that custodial parents received 59 percent of the child support due.
Other enforcement provisions of the PRWORA required that state child-support agencies gain the authority to demand income withholding, order genetic tests to establish paternity and be permitted to seize assets of delinquent parents held by financial institutions or in public and private retirement funds.
Because each state is responsible for its own child-support enforcement, the federal government couldnt force states to make these changes. However, it did promise to withhold Temporary Assistance for Needy Family (TANF) block grants -- funds established in the PRWORA that support states child-support and welfare programs -- if they didnt