Report to Congress on Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card


The Social Security card is the accepted token of participation in the Social Security program. Over the years the SSN has become an identification number used throughout the U.S. to such an extent that many consider it to be, in effect, the national identifier.

Concerns about the use of the number in our society continue to be raised as proposals about expanding or restricting its uses are debated. Issues such as balancing privacy protection and public interests, and providing integrity for data systems while combating fraud, will be key in deciding the future of the SSN as an identifier. These concerns form the framework for examining the enhanced card options.

Issuing enhanced cards is technologically feasible and would cost between $5,169 million to $10,502 million. The prototypes in this study represent the full range of available card technologies. The requirements for the proposed uses of and the results to be achieved by adopting an enhanced card have yet to be specified, therefore, we did not provide an analysis of the potential benefits or drawbacks of each option. We have illustrated the options, but not recommended an option for implementation.

Enhanced cards may be issued either prospectively for new original and replacement cards or by a mass reissuance to all current number holders, as the legislation mandating this study appears to contemplate. A prospective issuance is less costly, but allows all cards currently in use to remain valid indefinitely.

Mass reissuance is much more costly and more burdensome to the public, but could achieve intended results by using the card much sooner and invalidating all current cards. It seems prudent to consider the full range of potential uses and the availability of other solutions before any mass reissuance decision is reached. We have suggested the drivers license, and State-issued identity card, as one alternative to achieve certain objectives.

Charging a fee to receive an enhanced card is feasible, but adds substantial administrative cost for collecting the fee. The total costs for issuing an enhanced card and collecting a user fee range from $5,169 million to $10,502 million.

Expenditures of this magnitude should have commensurate benefits. Public reaction can be expected to raise serious questions about the SSN as an officially recognized national identity number, about protecting privacy, and about the value of spending large sums for a new card.

Ultimately, the extent the public accepts an enhanced card and complies with reissuance will depend largely on their perception of the acceptable uses of the SSN and card and the tangible and intangible benefits that the new card imparts.