Welfare Reform's Privacy Risk

by David B. Kopel

Washington Times. Dec. 11, 1995. More by Kopel on welfare.

As Congress debates whether the Republican welfare reform bill is too tough on welfare recipients, or not tough enough, an important question has gone unanswered: why is the bill so tough on people who don’t receive welfare? If the Republican welfare bill becomes law, people who have never taken a penny of welfare in their lives will suffer a major loss of privacy rights.

First of all, the welfare bill requires state governments to collect social security numbers from every applicant for a marriage license, every applicant for a professional or occupational license, every applicant for a commercial driver’s license, and everyone who dies.

This new mandate violates the Tenth Amendment principle that states, not the Congress, have the exclusive responsibility for setting the terms for recognizing of marriages, granting divorces, and licensing the professions.

Moreover, the mandate breaks one of the fundamental promises of the Social Security system, which was that the social security number would be used solely to dispense benefits, and not as a universal identity number.

The more that social security numbers have to be disclosed, the more opportunities that dishonest persons (including some of the government employees who process paperwork) will have to obtain someone’s social security number, along with other crucial identification information, such as the information that must be disclosed in various license applications. Armed with the social security number and other personal data, criminals can obtain confidential medical information, credit card data, and a host of other information that can be used to buy products and charge them to the unknowing victim, or for other nefarious purposes.

Under the Financial Privacy Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act, banks and credit reporting agencies may not disclose private consumer information to government agencies, unless the agencies first obtain a subpoena. But the welfare bill allows officials from child support agencies to obtain private information just by demanding it. There is no evidence that the current law requiring state officials to get a subpoena—a simple process—has impeded the enforcement of child support laws.

If child support officials are allowed to obtain private consumer information just by asking it, there is no logical impediment to almost every other law enforcement agency being given the same authority. The Fourth Amendment, of course, was intended to prevent all government agencies from obtaining private financial records without first obtaining a warrant based upon probable cause.

The Privacy Act of 1974 presciently recognized that personal, private data collected for one particular purpose should not be used for other purposes. Section 101 of the welfare bill destroys this principle, allowing information collected under the Social Security Act to be used virtually at will by any and all non-welfare government agencies.

Indeed, states are required to provide the name address of all welfare and food stamp recipients to any law enforcement agency which wants it. Thus, a county sheriff interested only in gossip—with no law enforcement purpose that could be demonstrated to a court—could peruse a list of families in his country who need food stamps.

Most ominously of all, the bill takes a giant step forward towards requiring governmental permission for a person to take a new job, as is proposed by immigration restriction advocates such as Senator Feinstein. The step is accomplished by imposing an unfunded mandate on all businesses to report new hires to state governments, which much compile worker registries, and turn them over to the federal government. Employees would be tracked in both state and federal "New Hires Directory" databases.

From here, it is only a small step to require prior governmental authorization for a new hire, to check if the potential new employee is an illegal alien (or belongs to any other group that Congress wants to forbid employment).

Such federal control over the right to work would, of course, be greatly enhanced by the mandatory use of the social security number as a universal identification number, as required by other provisions of the welfare bill.

As Cato Institute research has pointed out, literally millions of American citizens would be prevented from working because of errors in federal databases. And from a national worker registry, it is not a large step to a national identity card, with all of its totalitarian implications.

The groups which have opposed privacy violations in the welfare bills—such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Electronic Privacy Information Center—are hardly apologists for the current welfare mess. While child support enforcement is a legitimate component of a welfare reform strategy, such enforcement is a state, not a federal responsibility. And slashing at the privacy rights of all Americans in order to better collect money from the small fraction who avoid child support enforcement is, in the words of Justice Frankfurter, "to burn down the house to roast a pig."

"First, do no harm," is the fundamental rule of medicine. It would be ironic if Congress "cured" the welfare system by harming the privacy rights of the hundreds of millions of Americans who do not ask for or receive welfare.

 

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