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The December 2015 Uniform Assessment Instrument of Virginia's Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services (an instruction manual for administration of certain public social services) contains the following astonishing assertion about Social Security Numbers (SSNs) in the USA (emphasis mine):

13.12.1 Name and vital information

Record the full name of the individual....

The SSN is a nine-digit number, which will be used to track information on all individuals who are assessed. It is important that every person have a unique number. Most individuals should have a SSN, but you will find that some female individual’s [sic] use their Medicare number as their SSN and/or their husband's SSN as their own....

On occasion, the assessor will need to generate a dummy social security number for an individual. This will happen when a female individual only has her husband's number and he is still alive, or when there is no number to be found. In the cases where the wife is using the husband's SSN, generate a dummy number for the wife in the following way....

I can believe that there was a time in US history when men were more likely to have Social Security numbers than women because they were the ones more likely to be going out and doing things that required an SSN, but SSN's were created in 1936 and it has long been nearly impossible to function in the US without a number and it is difficult to believe that a practice of women just using their husbands' numbers was common as late as 2015. It's in fact difficult to believe this was ever common - presumably, if a woman in the late 1930's needed to do something that required an SSN (e.g. get a Federal job), she would just go and get one herself rather than just putting her husband's number down.

Reading this document was the first time I've ever heard of this practice. Even after working several years in healthcare administration (where we tracked SSN's for everyone), I have to admit that this was never a thing I encountered or even heard of ever happening. None of our training covered this scenario - it was assumed that anyone using a SSN other than their own was per se committing fraud and deserved to be punished by catapult or at the very minimum reported for investigation.

When my niece was born, my brother applied for an SSN for her that very month. The idea that they could simply wait 18 years to see if she could just get by with a future husband's number wasn't on the table at all.

Is it common today in the USA for women to use their husband's SSN as their own, or was this ever a common practice?

One possibility that I thought of was that this is an accommodation for women who are present in the USA unlawfully (not eligible for an SSN) but lawfully married to someone with an SSN, but that doesn't seem satisfactory because their is no similar accommodation for men who are in the US unlawfully but using their "legal" spouse's SSN. I also note that if this were the case, I would have expected the document to just come out and say it, e.g. "If the patient is not eligible for a SSN for reasons, generate a dummy number in the following manner....".

Another possibility that I considered was that this is related to Social Security survivorship benefits, i.e. where a woman is receiving benefits under her husband's Social Security account (e.g. as a widow). That doesn't make sense either - the systems I've used have always been smart enough to handle that. If a patient was in that kind of scenario, we would put their actual SSN on their biography tab and the funding source's SSN on the insurance tab (e.g. "This is Mary Smith, SSN 123-45-6789, she is receiving benefits under her husband William Smith's SS account, SSN 987-65-4321").

If this was never actually a thing that people actually did, but there is some state or Federal regulation that requires agencies to theoretically permit this (e.g. "Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman lawfully married to a Social Security Number holder may lawfully use such number for all purposes as if it were her own and no agency may require her to apply for her own number as a condition of receiving any services whatsoever as may otherwise be authorized under law...."), that's an answer.

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    Note that the quote source does not assert that this is a common practice. At best we can infer from the quote that it is common enough to instruct administrators on how to handle such a case if they encounter it.
    – TimRias
    Jul 16, 2021 at 12:46
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    @mmeent though the phraseology "you will find that some..." does imply that it is common enough that most staff will encounter cases. Certainly the inclusion of this case over other hypothetical SSN irregularities indicates that the State of Virginia considers this scenario to be notable. Jul 16, 2021 at 12:53
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    Note that this is an agency that deals with elderly people, some from rural Appalachia, and its manual contains instructions that may have not been updated for many years. I wouldn't be surprised that a woman born on a farm in the 1920's or 1930's and never held a job outside the home or farm would seldom have need of a SSN, and might've used their husbands' on the rare occasions when they would. The advice in the manual is surely becoming obsolete, but bureaucratic guidelines are slow to change.
    – antlersoft
    Jul 16, 2021 at 13:42
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    People now get SS numbers as infants because it is needed to claim them as dependents on a parent’s income tax return. From IRS site "Taxpayer Identification Number (TIN) - You must provide the TIN (usually the social security number) of each qualifying individual." irs.gov/taxtopics/tc602 Jul 16, 2021 at 22:35
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    I was born in 1949. I got my SSN in 1964 when I was 15, but that was unusual -- I was working as a volunteer in downtown Louisville just a few doors from the office where you could register, so I did that when I had a few spare minutes. My older brother didn't get his SSN until he graduated from college. Jul 17, 2021 at 17:58

3 Answers 3

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Until the IRS rule requiring SS to claim dependents, the usual time to get a SS # was when you applied to your first job. A person who never applied for a job might not ever have applied.

In the early '80s I filed jointly with a wife who had her own SS#. In correspondence with the IRS the pair of us were referred to collectively as my SS, our name was concatenated with her name.

Under these circumstances a wife using her husband's SS# would not be uncommon.

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    I think in practice the husbands SS# was not so much used as a wife's SS#, but as a stand-in as a family identifier. Jul 28, 2021 at 22:11
  • Wouldn't a non-working wife have required a social security number to file a joint return with her working husband before the dependent rule?
    – phoog
    Oct 21, 2023 at 9:07
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Yes.

...it has long been nearly impossible to function in the US without a number...

While Social Security numbers (SSN) are ubiquitous today, and women's rights have advanced, I believe this question needs some historical context. Today it can be difficult to imagine an era when people didn't need their SSN habitually and when a woman might never have had a job they paid taxes on.

These are instructions for Virginia's Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services who would be working with women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s. They could have been born as early as the 1930s, and gotten married in the 1950s. Their fathers and husbands took care of the finances and paperwork. They could literally have never had to deal with government paperwork.


Social Security Numbers have only become ubiquitous in the last 20 or 30 years.

I joke that what I learned at university was my SSN because they used it for our university ID (which they shouldn't have). Otherwise I wouldn't have needed it then. That was in the 1990s.

Social Security began as a just another US Federal program. They were necessary for tracking substantial amounts of income to calculate your benefits, so you only got one if you had substantial amounts of income. Many people, particularly women, might never have substantial income, or be working "under the table" to avoid taxes. This slowly changed.

Prior to the Internet and 9/11, it was rare for an American to need to identify themselves at all. When they did typically a driver's license was sufficient. One didn't even need a passport to go to Canada or Mexico.

There was a taboo against Federal agencies sharing information to avoid government overreach and a surveillance state, and this extended to using your SSN as an ID number. Between 1946 and 1972 the card said "Not For Identification" and that idea persisted long after.

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Now just about everyone in the US gets an SSN as a child, but this is relatively modern. Prior to 1986, parents claiming dependents on their taxes did so on the honor system. The Tax Reform Act of 1986 changed this, it required parents to get a SSN for all their dependents. Millions of American children disappeared that year.

Post-9/11, with the establishment of the Dept of Homeland Security, Federal agencies increasingly shared data. Even with name and address, it is difficult to identify an individual, especially one with a common name who moves around. The closest thing to a universal Federal ID that the US had was the SSN.

Even with the rise of the Internet, it was still rare to have to give out personal information to get an account. Personally Identifiable Information (PII) such as your address and phone number were not asked for without a specific need such as shipping a package. The Nymwars in the early 2010s were online fights over policies which required users of social media and video games to use their real names. It's only with the rise of personal data mining and online shopping that asking for PII, such as an SSN, has become normal.


An 80 year old woman may never had needed an SSN

if a woman in the late 1930's needed to do something that required an SSN (e.g. get a Federal job), she would just go and get one herself

A woman getting a Federal job in the 1930s would have been rare.

That woman was only guaranteed the right to vote in 1920. She only incrementally started to get equal protection in the 60s and 70s with things such as the Equal Pay Act of 1963 and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and still does not have an equal rights guarantee.

Let's consider that a person working for Virginia's Department for Aging and Rehabilitative Services will regularly encounter people aged 80 and older. That person would have been born in 1943. They would have been 18 in 1961.

Using data from the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, table 2, in 1961 61% of women were "not in the labor force", meaning they were not looking for a job, vs 17% of men. In addition, decades ago it was much more common to be paid "under the table" in cash, that way both the employer and employee avoided paying taxes; no SSN required. You can see how there are a significant portion of elderly women who either never had a job that needed an SSN, or it was decades ago.

One example of how different life was for women then is getting a bank account. It wasn't until 1974 and the Equal Credit Opportunity Act that a woman had the right to open a bank account without a man's approval, they could be required to get a joint account with their husband or father, or just not have their name on a bank account or any account. Even afterwards, it was very normal for a married woman get a joint account with their husband.


Conclusion

With all that context, we can imagine an 80 year old woman born in 1941 who graduated high school in 1961 who is now entering Virginia's state run elder care services.

Her parents did not get her an SSN, there was no need. She perhaps worked a few jobs (possibly being paid in cash, no SSN) before getting married in her early 20s. For the past 50 years she has been supported by her husband. Her husband has always handled the finances. She has a bank account opened by her husband. If she has a cell phone, it's on a family plan with her husband or children. She doesn't use computers, or when she does she uses her husband's computer and accounts.

She might have been issued an SSN at some point in her life, she might have used it back in her 20s, but she hasn't had to use it much since. To us an SSN is a necessity for modern life. To her it's just some ID on an old card sitting in a drawer at her house where she may no longer live. When asked if she has an SSN, she might not remember she ever had one; her husband always took care of that.

This is common enough to be worth a mention to her caretakers.

My own personal experience supports this with my own mother, in her late 70s. She had an SSN, but hadn't had to do anything with it for a long time; dad took care of it.

Mom married in her late 20s and she did work, but she stopped working 20 or 30 years ago. When my father died a few years ago, my mother did not know how to run a house anymore. She did not know how to pay the bills, or what bills there were to pay. She did not know the difference between a credit and debit card, despite using both. She didn't know where the investments were. She'd forgotten how to balance a checkbook (and wanted to use a checkbook). She did not know how to use a computer. All her accounts were joint with my father.

I had to spend weeks puzzling this all out with her and retraining her to run a house in the 21st century. It's not difficult to imagine someone at that age who is even more dependent on their husband simply using their husband's accounts and forgetting they have their own SSN.

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According to Tools for Evaluating Health Technologies (1995), a publication of the 103rd Congress, at page 50 in a portion written by Jeff Whittle of the Veterans Administration:

For example, women who are eligible for Medicare because of their husbands' eligibility use their husbands' social security numbers (although each beneficiary's own number will be included in the Medicare claims database in the future.)

So, even if a person had their own social security number, if they were qualifying for Medicare based on their spouse's record, the spouse's number was used as of 1995.

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