Nanny State

The Watchers

Using delinquent parents to justify government snooping


Welfare-reform advocates from President Clinton to California Gov. Pete Wilson argue that strictly enforcing child-support requirements will prevent deadbeat parents from skipping their family obligations and will cut welfare costs. But in their zeal to track down delinquent parents, congressional welfare reformers threaten the liberty and privacy of every American, not just those who skip out on their spouses and kids.

Provisions in the welfare-reform bill passed by the House this summer and the bill pending in the Senate sponsored by Majority Leader Bob Dole would eventually give government employees access to personal and financial information on just about every adult. The bills would require every employer to register the name, address, and Social Security number of each person the company hires with two registries of new employees–one operated by the federal and another by that state's government. Since 65 million persons enter the work force or change jobs every year, and three-fourths of all employees will take new jobs within a decade, over time these new-hire registries would have records on most American adults.

The bills also would require states to include Social Security numbers on every application for a professional license, commercial driver's license, occupational license, marriage license, and divorce decree. When combined with the hiring registries, says David Banisar of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, use of the Social Security number would permit "one-stop shopping for government surveillance."

Databases with such information have only been kept on persons who had criminal records, says Deirdre Mulligan of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a privacy-rights group. "Now," says Mulligan, the government "will have access to highly detailed information on people who haven't done anything wrong."

Other provisions would make it easier for government agents or private citizens to snoop on individuals. The Fair Credit Reporting Act, for instance, now requires a court order before officials can look at someone's credit report. The welfare bills would repeal this protection and let any government child-support agency or a private sector proxy designated by the agency obtain a credit report by merely mailing a certified letter to the credit bureau. The bills would similarly repeal protections in the Right to Financial Privacy Act and let banks disclose individuals' financial records to state child-support agencies on request.