Proof of Identity

For people who are low-income, it can be surprisingly difficult to obtain identification. The reason for that is surprisingly simple: you need proof of identity (and often residency) in order to get proof of identity! This creates a vicious circle where not having documentation of your identity means not being able to get proof of your identity; and not having proof of your identity makes it harder – if not all but impossible – to get documentation.

This is something that most people – people who aren’t in this vicious cycle – don’t realize. Since I recently encountered some people who couldn’t believe that it can be so difficult to get identification, I thought I’d do a little thought experiment.

Meet Bob. Bob needs to obtain proof of identity in the form of a state ID card. He lives in Iowa in an ‘informal’ arrangement: he crashes in the spare bedroom of his sister’s apartment. He isn’t on the lease. He also doesn’t have a copy of his birth certificate or Social Security card. He’s unemployed and has been for several months. Put simply, he’s an adult who isn’t in the system.

The first thing Bob needs to do to get an Iowa ID card is… prove his identity. There are several documents that he can use to do this, including a valid passport, a birth certificate, a certificate of citizenship, or various immigration records. He doesn’t have his birth certificate, but that’s the document that will be easiest for him to get.

Bob was born in Illinois, so he’ll have to get his birth certificate from that state. Since he doesn’t have an ID, he needs to submit two pieces of documentation with his name, one of which must also have his current address. One of them can be a bill or another piece of mail, and we’ll assume that he can produce that. The other must be one from a list. He doesn’t have any of those documents, but his sister will help him open a bank account – a pretty big feat since he has no ID – so he can produce a bank statement. With those documents and $10, he can get his birth certificate mailed to him in about a week.

Now he needs a document with his name and Social Security Number. He doesn’t have his Social Security card, a W-2, or a 1099. Looks like it’s time to go get a Social Security card!

In order to get a replacement Social Security card, he needs two things: proof of citizenship and proof of identity. Since he has his birth certificate, he can prove his citizenship (he was smart enough to get multiple copies… for an extra $2 a piece). Identity is going to be harder. He doesn’t have any of the standard documents – state ID card, driver’s license, passport, military ID card, etc. – so the Social Security office will ask for other documents.

It’s hard to know what proof of identity they’ll ask for and accept, so this might be a dead-end for him. We’ll assume he eventually manages to get a Social Security card.

Having sufficiently proof of his identity – the very thing he’s trying to get – Bob must now prove his residency. He has his bank statement now, since he needed that for his birth certificate. His sister also got him a subscription to The New Yorker for his birthday, so he has a postmarked magazine with his name on it.

With those documents and $8, he can now go to the DMV and get his ID card. Provided, of course, that they actually accept his documents.

But there’s a problem here. This scenario is unrealistically easy. Many low-income individuals are unbanked, and opening a bank account without an ID or source of income isn’t always possible. If Bob hadn’t been able to open that bank account, he wouldn’t have been able to get a bank statement, and that would have kept him from getting his birth certificate. Perhaps he would have been able to find another form of documentation. More likely, this would have been a dead-end for him.

Similarly, there’s no reason to assume that the Social Security office would have accepted whatever alternative documents he would have been able to provide. In all likelihood, this would have been another dead-end.

Of course, this is only meant as an illustration of how difficult it can be to obtain proof of identity even when things go in your favor. When things don’t go so smoothly, it quickly becomes impossible.