Most of us, I suppose, have a photo ID and don’t think much about what we’d do without it. If we do, it’s probably because 17 states, mostly red, have made photo IDs a passport to the voting booth, not coincidentally disenfranchising disproportionate numbers of blacks, Hispanics and others who tend to vote for Democrats.
Nothing of that sort in the District of Columbia, which would probably be the bluest state if granted statehood. But lack of a photo ID here, as well as elsewhere is a problem — and getting one can be a big problem for people with little or no income.
Why Poor and Near-Poor Residents Need Photo IDs
Doubtful that very low-income residents will be trying to board planes — another occasion when the rest of us may become fleetingly conscious of the need for a photo ID. But they’ll face barriers to opportunities that can improve their situation if they don’t have one.
First off, federal rules require employers to verify the identity of people they hire. All but two of the acceptable documents are photo IDs. The only exception for adults will do nothing for the vast majority of prospective workers.
Second, lack of a photo IDs limits access to cash and in-kind assistance. Some local nonprofit sources of the latter, including many food pantries and some free-clothing providers will distribute only to residents with photo IDs.
The Department of Human Services agency that administers Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, SNAP (the food stamp program) and several smaller safety net programs advises applicants to bring photo IDs with them to the interview that’s part of the application process.
The IDs are not an absolute requirement, according to the department’s policy manual. We can nevertheless assume, I think, that the more accessible instruction — and thus prospects of hassle, if not denial — can deter residents from seeking help they need.
They may also figure it’s futile to try because they believe they must have a photo ID. That’s what the Washington Examiner reported — and what the District itself says homeless families must bring to the center that’s their gateway to services.*
A third reason is that lack of a photo ID can limit low-income residents’ opportunities to advocate for policies, including budgets that will alleviate their hardships — among them, the costs, frustrations and complexities of getting a photo ID.
The problem here is that only people with photo IDs can get into federal and District office buildings, including the building where the DC Council holds hearings and Councilmembers have their offices.
Why Poor and Near-Poor Residents May Face Problems
Getting a photo ID is a one-time nuisance for all District residents. but it’s singularly challenging for those who’ve got no money to spare, haven’t recently worked, except perhaps on a day-to-day or off-the-books basis, and/or don’t own or rent a home of their own.
This is partly because the District charges most residents $20 for an ID card and more than twice as much for a driver’s license, which serves the same identification purposes.
The larger problem is that the District requires three different types of documents for a photo ID — each with its own potential challenges.
Proof of Identity. Photo ID applicants must prove they’re U.S. citizens or legally-authorized immigrants. Many options, but for citizens, the most common are probably a birth certificate or currently-valid passport — unless they’ve already got a photo ID from another jurisdiction.
Not many poor folks have the passport, of course. They may not have a birth certificate handy either. The District will issue a copy to people born here, for a $23 charge. But they’ll need a photo ID or three other documents, none of which everyone is sure to have.
They’ll need a photo ID for sure if they want to request the birth certificate in person because the Vital Records Division is in one of those buildings that requires the ID for entrance.
States charge varying amounts for copies of birth certificates. Mine would cost $20 if I got a paper copy and could wait 6-8 weeks. To speed things up, I could order online — for nearly $88, even more if I need it ASAP.
Social Security Number. The District also requires applicants to present a document proving they have a Social Security number. Most people who work for pay — or did in the prior year — shouldn’t have a problem with this.
They’ll presumably have a pay stub or the end-of-year form their employer filed with the Internal Revenue Service, assuming they are or were actually on a payroll. Not much hope for many day laborers or people who do low-wage, occasional work for individuals and families.
For them, the only official option is a Social Security card. Lots of people who once had one don’t any more, for any one of a number of reasons, including theft of the wallet it was tucked in or just simple loss.
Either may be particularly likely for homeless individuals who spend their nights in shelters or on the streets and have to lug all their worldly belongings around during the day.
The solution then is getting a replacement Social Security card. But for that, one has to prove identity, with that photo ID, which won’t be issued without the card, or an ID of another specified sort, e.g., issued by an employer, school or government agency.
And if the Social Security Administration hasn’t issued the applicant a card before, it requires a birth certificate or passport. This is also true for a replacement if the applicant became a U.S. citizen after the original card was issued. Bit of a Catch 22 here, as you can see.
Proofs of Residency. Applicants must also produce two documents proving they live in the District, e.g., a recent utility bill, current lease or home insurance policy with their name on it, official mail from a federal or District government agency, with the envelope it came in.
Even homeowners and renters might have difficulty coming up with such documents. What if, for example, the lease and utility accounts are in a spouse’s name — or if they’re paying for a room or two on an informal month-to-month basis? And who, pray tell, saves the envelopes agency mail comes in?
The challenges are obviously greater for homeless people, including those who live doubled-up with friends or relatives, especially if they move frequently from one home to another. Though the District does have some workarounds, they’re a complex business — and known only to those in the know.
Why Such Challenges
The District didn’t just gin up all these documentation requirements. After 9/11, the Bush administration and Congress decided we’d all be a lot safer if terrorists couldn’t so easily board planes (or enter federal facilities and nuclear plants) with fraudulent IDs.
So the District had to impose requirements that would meet federal standards. Whether it could comply using a simpler, more flexible set is beyond my ken.
Whether it could do more to help homeless and other very low-income residents deal with the challenges the current set poses is a separate question. Look for a followup post on this.
* The statement about intake at the Family Resources Center appears, on its face, inconsistent with DHS policy. I have tried, without success, to fact-check it with staff directly responsible for center operations.