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The cost of inefficient Social Security record keeping

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The Social Security Administration keeps track of deaths in the U.S. with a death master file. The Inspector General at Social Security decided to give it an audit, after getting a call from a bank that went something like this: “Hey, a young guy just opened an account with us. But his Social Security Number says he was born in 1886.”

“How do you have people who were supposedly born those dates, and yet there’s no death on the death master file?” asks Rona Lawson, Deputy Assistant Inspector General for Audit in the Inspector General’s office. 

Lawson says banks use the “death master file” to make sure dead people’s Social Security numbers aren’t being used fraudulently. The E-Verify program uses it to find undocumented workers. Lawson says 4,000 of those 112-year-olds were put through E-verify.

“I don’t know whether those 4,000 people got the jobs or not,” she says, tongue-in-cheek.

At least eight federal agencies use the “death master file,” including the Department of Veterans Affairs and the IRS. Since the file isn’t 100 percent accurate, they could be paying out refunds and pensions to dead people. The Social Security Administration did respond to the audit, and says it doesn’t have the money or manpower to correct the “death master file.”

One problem is shrinking budget appropriations from Congress, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.

“It’s a little hypocritical to insist on cutting the funding and then blame the program for not adequately dealing with recording people’s deaths,” Baker says.

Social Security says it’ll look into problems and report back to the Inspector General by the end of September.


Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of Rona Lawson. The text has been corrected.

 

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