Social Security is the loneliest number

Ilearned I have surrendered. It began when I was 14 years old when I walked into a Social Security office in small-town Kansas, my birth certificate in hand, and applied for a Social Security card. A week later it came in the mail. I was somebody. I needed that card so I could walk fields in a long line with other 14-year-olds behind a company of older kids thumping watermelons and cutting the stems of the hollow sounding ones, leaving them for us to pick up then toss down the line to the next kid to the next in a watermelon brigade, to a truck with more of the older kids stacking watermelons. I never got promoted to thumper of stacker, but because of that card, for three days I was integral part of workforce, a machine.

I still have that card. In three years it will be 50 years old. Even at 14 years old I had the sentience to wonder, “Why do I need a government issued number to work?” The government gave me a plausible explanation…essentially it was an account number for participating in the responsibility of being an American through the paying of taxes and participating in the fruits of being an American by collecting social security. The 1970 version even spelled this out on the back of the card, “For Social Security and Tax Purposes — Not For Identification.” OK fair enough. So I surrendered a slither of my privacy, a slither of my freedom and even a bit of dignity to participate in America. It was justified.

This year that nearly fifty year old card became too faded, difficult to read, impossible to photocopy, so I sent for a new one. The new card does not say “For Social Security and Tax Purposes — Not For Identification.” It says “This card belongs to the Social Security Administration and you must return it if we ask for it.”

The number on my card does not belong to me. It belongs to the Social Security Administration. The Social Security Administration allows, often requires, that it be shared with employers, schools and banks, Cal Worthington Ford, JC Penney’s, many other departments of government, then with Equifax … and Equifax has shared it with everyone, everyone, else. And this has rendered the number completely diluted, meaningless and useless. For me to pretend this is OK is to simply surrender to complacency.

I have no way of knowing what those who own my number, the SSA, Equifax, the world … does with my number … making my social security number both an archaic and sinister sort of thing. I am forced to wonder if it is salvageable. Perhaps the social security number, TransUnion, Experian, Equifax should all pass out of existence. Perhaps it is time for a new number, a different kind of number, a better number.

It is evident we need a government identifier for both tax and Social Security purposes. It is pragmatic and efficient. But realistically, the social security number has always been that and too much more … more than one number can bear. One thing it has been, and should be, is a citizenship number. And that is what we should call it … a citizenship number. It should be used as an identifier for tax and social security purposes. It should also be used as an identifier for military service, petitioning courts, applying for government services, passports and grants, a government identifier, but not a commercial one.

It is also evident we need a commercial identifier. Our economy, our way of life depends on it. But it should not be the same number as our citizenship number and it should not be allowed to become a corporate property to be gleaned, bought and sold … or stolen.

When a commercial interest maintains a secretive, omnipotent and reckless control of an exhaustive collection of such identifying information, there are no possible, profitable uses that can be imagined that are not in some way intrusive or abusive. A commercial identifier, a credit rating, should be a tool not a commodity. It should be compiled and calculated by an independent non-profit agency both endowed and limited by narrow, day lighted laws, fully funded by the government but independent of either government or commercial enterprise. It should be a thing I own, a thing I alone may choose to nurture or abuse, choose to build or break, an honest reflection of those choices … a thing available to anyone … anyone I choose to share it with … for this mortgage, this car loan, this rental application, this job application.

When Anthem, AT&T, CardSystems Solutions Inc., Citigroup, the Commission on Elections, Countrywide Financial Corp, the Democratic National Committee, the Federal Reserve Bank, Internal Revenue Service, JP Morgan Chase, Office of Personnel Management, Scottrade, Equifax…even Trump Hotels and the Department of Homeland Security let our identifiers be stolen, the whole system became compromised and infected.

I embrace the idea of giving up a sliver of privacy, a sliver of freedom, even a little bit of dignity for the sake of a functioning government and a thriving economy. But the Social Security number is obsolete and overburdened. We have the technology to do this right. A nine-digit number is not the way. A single number is not the way. A commercialized number is not the way.

The back of my Social Security card says this card and this number belong to the Social Security Administration, that I must surrender it on demand. They may have it. I want a new one. No, I want two new numbers. This is all I have learned today.


James Wares lives in Marshalltown and can be reached at