Sunday, December 10, 2006

Social Security Stupidity

The US government is made up of a collection of various departments, and sometimes these departments make policies that are incompatible with the policies of other government departments. A very good example of this can be found in the Social Security Administration, and their refusal to grant social security numbers to people who are legally in this country but not allowed to work.

When someone comes to the United States on a temporary work visa (H1B, TN, etc.), that person is legally allowed to work here, however that person's dependents (spouse, children) are not. The Social Security Administration's (SSA's) policy is to give a social security number only to someone who is permitted to work here. And so, the recipient of the work visa is granted a social security number, but his dependents are not.

This creates problems with a number of other government departments, most notably the IRS. To claim a tax deduction for a dependent on your tax return here, you need to enter that person's social security number on the return. Because a visitor can't get a SS # for his dependents, the IRS allows you to apply for something called an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) for your dependents. An ITIN is the same format as a social security number, but it can only be used on your tax return, not for anything else. Thus, because of the SSA's refusal to give social security numbers to these people, the IRS has to manage a parallel program to give cards and numbers just so people can complete their tax returns.

The next problem this creates is with the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) in many states. In several states, you need a social security number to get a drivers' license. Depending on where a visitor and his dependents are from, this can create a classic "catch 22" for the visitor's spouse:
  • Depending on where it is from, you may be able to continue driving with your foreign drivers license, but you may be considered in violation of state law if you haven't converted this over to a state license if you're living in the state.
  • You can't get insurance on your car under your foreign license - you need to get your state license first.
  • You can't get your state drivers' license without a social security card.
  • You can't get a social security card because you're not legally allowed to work here (although you are legally allowed to live here, accompanying your spouse who is legally allowed to work).

Getting a drivers license when you are on a temporary visa is straightforward. Getting one when you are a dependent is not. I know one woman who came to the US on a K-1 (fiancee) visa to marry her husband, and could not get a drivers license for two years because of this situation: she wasn't allowed to work until her green card got further along, she was not allowed to get a SS# until she was allowed to work, and she couldn't get her drivers license without the SS#.

Another problem is that almost everything you do here in the US requires a social security number, as your credit report is tied to it. If you don't have a SS#, you can't open a bank account, can't get a credit card in your name, etc. So, while the primary visitor is allowed to work and do all this, his spouse is essentially stuck.

There are several reasons why this intransigence on the part of the Social Security Administration is incredibly selfish and stupid:

  • Because of it, the IRS is forced to run the ITIN program - a parallel program whose sole purpose is to give cards and numbers to people who the SSA refuses to give them to. The cost of the IRS having to run the ITIN program is far greater than it would cost for the SSA to simply give social security numbers to these people.
  • There is no security benefit to not giving social security numbers to visitors who are legally here. In fact, having a unique number to identify visitors would strengthen security.
  • Denying the spouses of visitors the ability to obtain a drivers license or credit puts an undue burden on many of these people.

A simple solution to this situation would be a change in policy at the Social Security Administration: to grant a social security number to anyone who is here in the US on a legal dependent status (H4, TD, etc.), and/or who needs to be claimed as a dependent on a US tax return. Implementing this policy would allow the IRS to shut down the ITIN program, and would result in significant cost savings, improved security, and streamlined processes.