Lack of photo ID triggers financial penalty

Thousands of Americans face economic challenges because, through no fault of their own, they are unable to secure a photo ID.

New rules in eleven states requiring voters to show photo ID have gotten lots of attention, but the issue is relevant beyond election day. By one estimate, 13 million Americans citizens don't have access to government-issued identification. And that lack of official documentation results in significant inconvenience and special financial penalties.

It’s not like these people don’t want official identification. Nor are they simply being stingy because they’re reluctant to fork out the $20 to $30 fee. For the most part, people without IDs want them, but they’re stuck in a bureaucratic black hole.

Ana Gonzales, a 63-year-old who lives in Philadelpia, has been trying to obtain an ID for years. She has a social security number and her wedding certificate from 1967. What she lacks is a birth certificate.

Gonzales was born in Puerto Rico and adopted by another family, but the adoption was informal. She doesn’t even know the name of her birth parents. And there’s a good chance that no official birth documents exist. She can’t even go to Puerto Rico to sort out the mess because she needs a photo ID in order to board a plane. It’s a classic Catch-22.

“I need a photo I-D in order to get the birth certificate. And I need my birth certificate in order to get a photo I-D,” says Gonzales.

Gonzales is forced to make detours to accommodate her lack of documentation. For example, she can’t just visit the neighborhood drug store. They want her to show a photo ID in order to buy medicine. So, she has to go out of her way to visit Smith’s Pharmacy, where she’s an old customer. When she enters, the employees greet her by name.

She picks up her prescription without hassle. “The reason I didn’t have to show ID is because they already have my record and they know who I am,” says Gonzales.

But there isn’t always a workaround for Gonzales and her family. Her husband has had to postpone retirement because he can’t get his wife listed on his retirement accounts without her birth certificate. That leaves her without access to her husband’s two pensions and his social security benefits.

According to a 2006 national survey sponsored by the Brennan Center for Justice, an estimated 13 million American citizens do not have access to a passport, naturalization papers or a birth certificate.

Niki Ludt runs the Face-to-Face legal clinic in Philadelphia. She says about 40 percent of her cases involve helping poor people obtain legal identification.

“I have clients who were either born at home, and no formal record of their birth was ever made,” says Ludt. “Or, in some cases, the hospital they were born at had suffered a fire. Or, the record was just simply lost.

Without an official identification, the deck is stacked against you. Before you can open a bank account, they’ll ask for photo ID. Doctors now want to see it before you’re allowed to see a specialist. And forget about trying to collect benefits.

“Somebody couldn’t obtain food stamps, or cash-assistance if they were raising minor children, or medical assistance, or social security benefits without proof of ID,” says Ludt. Gloria Cuttino, 62, is poor and qualifies for federal housing assistance. She received housing vouchers from the government in the past. But when she couldn’t show a photo ID, she was cut off.

Cuttino was born in South Carolina to a midwife who may not have been able to read or write. She went through her whole life without an official ID. Up until 2004, she says, it was never a problem. Since then, Gonzales says, “Everywhere I turn, I need an ID.”

She’s been working with a lawyer to apply for what’s known as a delayed birth certificate. So far, she’s spent more than $200 on various state fees, and expects she will have to spend more before she’s done.

Her lack of identification blocks Cuttino from getting a job. She filled out applications at a restaurant and a clothing retailer. Both turned her down when she couldn’t produce a valid ID.

She can’t understand how she got in this Twilight-Zone situation, where the state refuses to acknowledge that she exists. “Sometimes it makes me ask, ‘Who am I?’ I almost don’t know who I am,” Cuttino says.

It’s a frustrating position for people who were infants or toddlers when these bureaucratic mistakes occurred. “I’m a victim here in the sense that this wasn’t my fault,” says Ana Gonzales. “We are people who have worked. Have paid taxes. We contribute to society.”

There is a small consolation for Gonzales. Even though she has no photo ID, she did manage to get a voter ID. It can’t be used as a form of identification. But she’s happy that she can at least vote in this election.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.

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