Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Why Do We Need to Know Who Everyone Is?

Have you heard the story of 19-year-old Alecia Pennington (born Faith Sublett), whose home-schooling, Christian parents reportedly live so far off the grid of government interference that she was never issued a birth certificate (let alone any other government-issued documents like a Social Security card or driver's license)? It got me thinking about why we're so obsessed with being able to prove who everyone is.

A significant number of black people over 60, born in the South when their mothers were not allowed in white hospitals, have no birth certificates, for instance, which is part of the reason voter ID laws are a bad idea. But no one seems to care that they don't have ID. They got issued driver's licenses and voting registration cards without birth certificates, I imagine, because people knew who they were. Do they have Social Security numbers?

If we weren't concerned about "illegal" immigration, we wouldn't have to worry so much about birth certificates. If voting was open to anyone who lives in the country -- immigrants, ex-felons, everybody -- then proving who people are wouldn't matter. You could register on the same day with either documents showing your address, like a utility bill, or with someone to vouch for you (that's how we do it in Minnesota!).

Alecia got by until now, living in the state of Texas, because she was a kid and because she was white. Being able to live until the age of 19 with no ID is the ultimate white privilege.

The freak-out over keeping Social Security numbers secret began with the IRS change in the 1980s to require an SSN to claim your children as a deduction, and with the rise of credit cards and credit ratings. Now with someone else's SSN, you can steal something you're not entitled to (their tax refund or goods bought with their credit).

Why should it matter that anyone has my SSN? They can't retire on my money until I hit at least 62 years of age since the government knows how old I am. When that time comes, the government has a process for ascertaining you are who you say you are.

Why is the SSN used in so many ways that it's basically become a national ID number? Whose interest does that serve? As the main character declared in the classic television show The Prisoner, "I am not a number, I am a free man!" But that doesn't seem to be true any more.


Alecia has six or seven siblings still at home. She was helped to escape from her parents'  home by her maternal grandparents. As Hemant Mehta says in the linked story above, there are some nebulous details involved, but I wonder if this family isn't due a visit from Child Protective Services and the IRS (have they been filing taxes?).

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