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Tamper-Proof Social Security Card Urged


WASHINGTON — Daniel Patrick Moynihan was 15 when he got his Social Security card in 1943. He promptly lost it.

"It didn't look like anything worth keeping," the New York senator recalled. "It did not suggest its importance."

Moynihan, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on Social Security, for more than a decade has been crusading to replace the paper card with something more impressive and tamper-resistant.

"I think it a rather simple proposition that a plastic, counterfeit-proof Social Security card would reduce fraud and enhance public confidence in our Social Security system," he said at a recent subcommittee hearing.

"We should have a durable, plastic card that people can carry around in their wallets and feel that they have something, a card that gives them a sense of membership in the Social Security system."

That "simple proposition," however, keeps bumping up against longstanding fears that the Social Security card would become a national ID card the government could use to keep track of people.

Those concerns were born with the Social Security system itself in the 1930s, when there were worries that the giant retirement system would become a bureaucracy that had everyone's number and knew all about them.

As a result, the government designed Social Security cards "to be pulpy and wear out in six weeks or whatever and not give any sense that the Third Reich was appearing in the United States," Moynihan said.

A more enduring card would help instill confidence in Social Security and reduce crimes based on false identities perpetuated with counterfeit cards, according to Moynihan.

But even now, when the use of Social Security numbers is widely accepted for a variety of purposes, the government is wary of making any changes that would suggest a national identification system.

"The (Social Security) administration has always had fundamental concerns about the possibility of the Social Security card and number becoming a universal identifier in this country," Louis D. Enoff, the agency's deputy commissioner of programs, said at a recent hearing of Moynihan's subcommittee.

The General Accounting Office, in a March report to Congress, suggested that debate already may be largely moot.

"Many would argue that we already have an almost universal identifier in the country--the Social Security number," the GAO said. It noted that a Social Security number is needed to report income earned from work, to claim children age 2 and older as dependents for tax purposes and to obtain driver's licenses in many states.

Moynihan thought he had succeeded in improving Social Security cards in 1983, when Congress enacted legislation requiring the government to come up with a new counterfeit-resistant card. But the new cards, although more difficult to alter, look much like the old ones and still are made of paper.

His crusade is receiving renewed attention this year because it has been linked with the issue of employment discrimination by employers afraid of being punished for hiring illegal aliens.

Under the nation's 4-year-old immigration law, workers can establish their legal eligibility to work by presenting any one of 17 documents, including Social Security cards.

The GAO's report said discrimination might be reduced by simplifying the process for checking work eligibility, perhaps by relying on a revised Social Security card or a driver's license with a verified Social Security number.

But Enoff told the subcommittee that Social Security does not need a better card and that there are less expensive ways to address employment discrimination.

Gene McNary, commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said immigration law prohibits the establishment of a national identity card, but does allow the creation of an "employment-authorization document."

"We have to work to find a way to produce the latter without violating the restriction of the former," he said.

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