Why We Assign Social Security Numbers at Birth

Social Security numbers are now a necessity, even for young children.

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Jacob and Isabella were the most popular names given to newborn boys and girls in the United States in 2010, according to Social Security card application data released yesterday. Each name made up just over 1 percent of all births reported to the Social Security Administration last year.

[See Social Security Ends Paper Checks.]

Names tend to top the list for several years before they are displaced by a newly trendy name. In the 1990s Michael and Jessica dominated the list. And James and Mary were the most common names in the 1950s. A change in when Social Security numbers are generally assigned has allowed this information to be collected faster, which makes these annual popular names lists possible.

We now apply for Social Security numbers for our children shortly after they are born. Registering for a Social Security number for a newborn, while voluntary and free, is often necessary if you want to claim your child as a dependent on your income tax return, open a bank account or buy savings bonds in their name, obtain medical coverage, or apply for government services for your child. But this wasn’t always the case.

[See 10 Ways to Boost Your Social Security Checks.]

The Tax Reform Act of 1986 required that every dependent age five or older listed on a tax return have their own Social Security number, which led to a spike in demand for Social Security numbers for children at earlier ages. The Social Security Administration developed an enumeration-at-birth process in 1987, which quickly became the way the majority of people apply for Social Security numbers. Now parents indicate on the birth certificate form whether they want a Social Security number assigned to their newborn child. When the state vital statistics office receives the request with the birth registration data from the hospital, it forwards the information to the Social Security Administration and a number and card are issued for the child.

You don’t have to apply for a Social Security number for your child at the hospital, but it’s generally easier if you do. If you wait and apply later at a Social Security office, you must provide proof of your child’s U.S. citizenship and age, such as a birth certificate, and wait for Social Security to verify the record with the office that issued it, which could take up to 12 weeks. Children age 12 or older must appear in person for a mandatory interview at a Social Security office in order to have a number assigned to them.

[See Social Security Launches Star Trek Commercial.]

Parents who applied for a Social Security card at the hospital between Jan. 1 and March 31, 2011 received it within an average 3 weeks, but the wait time varied significantly by state. New parents in Kansas, Minnesota, South Carolina, and Texas typically had their child’s Social Security card within a week, while Louisiana parents had an average wait time of 9 weeks, the longest of any state.

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