By the Numbers

Michigan wants to keep its citizens Social Security numbers away from the federal government. Next stop -- the courthouse.

by / June 11, 2001
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."

Mandating Identification

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 comply.

"There are always privacy concerns around this [issue]," said Stephanie Walton, a child support expert at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "Back when states were dealing with passing the child-support requirements, this was an area of controversy."

The Michigan Debate

Nevertheless, nearly every state now collects Social Security numbers on license applications, divorce decrees, paternity establishments and numerous other forms. A few states have received exemptions from one or two of the provisions. Montana doesnt have to note the numbers on death certificates, and Wisconsin was granted a limited religion-based exemption for certain provisions.

But many other requests have been turned down. Walton said Oregon and Montana were denied their requests not to collect Social Security numbers on hunting and fisherman licenses for minors under the age of 16 and have since reapplied for exemption.

Michigans Department of State gave a much stronger response when its August 2000 exemption request was denied: Well see you in court. "Right now, we have 10 million records that our Family Independence Agency has direct access to," said Anne Corgan, director of the states Legal Services Bureau. "When they search those records for an individual, they succeed in finding that person better than 90 percent of the time."

A switch by the state to using Social Security numbers to track down delinquent parents would result not only in a smaller search database -- seven million names instead of 10 million -- but an increase in costs, as well. "We would have to develop a new process for collecting and storing Social Security numbers that have significant cost implications to us," said Corgan.

OCSE reimburses 66 percent of a states administrative costs, but according to Michigans complaint, that would still leave $20 million in unreimbursed expenses. The state would lose an additional $20 million in "incentive" funds that are paid to states based on the cost effectiveness of their child-support enforcement systems.

The states complaint also argues that the collection of Social Security numbers on drivers license applications is not reasonably related to the collection of child support, violates its citizens (unwritten) "fundamental right to privacy" and that the federal government has violated the Constitutions Tenth Amendment. "It is interfering with the sovereignty of the state of Michigan and every other state," said Corgan.

Corgan said the Secretary of States office has received "tremendous support from individual citizens in Michigan and throughout the country," but no support from other states.

That could soon change. Maine Representative Harold A. Clough, R-Scarborough, has sponsored a legislative document (LD89) that would eliminate the need for Maine citizens to provide a Social Security number when applying for a drivers license. "A lot of people are complaining about the invasion of privacy [that comes with] having to use their Social Security number for a whole bunch of things that it was never designed for," said Clough. "Some of them arent renewing [their licenses]."

The draft of the bill hasnt gone to hearing yet, but Clough is aware of the possibility of losing federal funds. "Well get into that when we hear the bill," he said. "Im not sure that we couldnt find a way around it."

Michigans lawsuit will undoubtedly show him whether thats possible. At press time the suit hadnt yet been heard, but Michigan has already been threatened with the loss of a TANF block grant by the Department of Health and Human Services -- a loss of funds that would total more than $900 million.

"We dont think theyll do that," said Anne Corgan. "But the ball is in their court."