Access Denied

Published in the Fall 2009 issue of SSA Magazine

Service roadblocks without proper government ID.

NEW AND INCREASINGLY STIFF identification requirements for receiving public assistance—many in place since 9/11—make it difficult for some people to receive the help that they desperately need and that the law entitles them to.

Amy Blank Wilson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, followed mentally ill men and women just released from jail as they tried to get food stamps, cash assistance to pay for housing, and medical care. Many leave jail with little more than a few dollars in their pocket. At least two-thirds had lost their identification—either they didn't have it when arrested or the authorities didn't properly keep track of it.

And so they found themselves caught in a bureaucratic loop worthy of Kafka, where to get any major form of government identification they needed to produce a major form of government identification. Eventually the people who Wilson followed were able to get the help they needed, but at the cost of time and frustration. The staff at one agency spent much of its time helping clients fulfill basic needs like food and housing, rather than addressing their mental illnesses.

Workers at social service agencies sometimes have the discretion to accept the testimony of a third person to authenticate identity or accept unusual forms of identification. But such decisions depend heavily on the individual worker, and public assistance programs encourage erring on the side of stringency. "It's a pretty brutal process that discourages people from applying," Wilson says.

Research suggests that many other groups of people find it hard to meet identification requirements, including the poor, the elderly and victims of natural disasters. Wilson suggests that policymakers institute specific alternatives for people who have lost their identification. Other solutions often don't work. After her study was completed, the jail system in the city where she worked agreed to issue its own identification card to inmates. Unfortunately, none of the local social service agencies would recognize it.

Amy Blank Wilson. 2009. "It Takes ID to Get ID: The New Identity Politics in Services." Social Service Review 83, no. 1 (March): 111-32.