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The Silent Inequality: American Birth Certificate Prejudices

Anyone who has ever lost, destroyed, or never received his or her birth certificate  knows that the only way to obtain a replacement copy is to purchase one from his or her local Department of Vital Statistics. Without a birth certificate, it is extremely difficult to get almost all other forms of identification: Applications for driver’s licenses, state identification cards, passports and social security cards all require the applicant to present a copy of his or her birth certificate. Because a birth certificate is required in order to acquire any alternative form of identification, placing fees on obtaining copies of birth certificates serves as a boundary to the acquisition of further types of identification, and subsequently as a boundary to voting. If you boil it down to document fees, in total it costs $46.50 to vote or be employed in Rhode Island. And though at first glance this doesn’t appear to be a tremendous cost, it operates as an indirect form of prejudice against those unable to purchase them and, by extension, serves as a form of systemic racism and classism.

Copies of birth certificates in the United States are not free. Each state has different procedures regarding vital statistics, but in general, individual counties control birth certificates, death certificates and marriage certificates. In order to obtain a copy of your birth certificate, you must contact your county or state’s Department of Vital Statistics. After paying a fee of around $20, you’ll receive a copy. Now, $20 is not an exorbitant price, but it still creates a system of inequity by favoring certain socioeconomic statuses. Individuals who can comfortably pay that fee are able to obtain a birth certificate copy, but consider those living below the current poverty line: for a single person household, the poverty line annually is $11,670. For an individual living on just under $1,000 a month, $20 would constitute a meaningful purchase.  Paying for birth certificate copies thereby disadvantages low-income individuals. It seems as though the demographic most likely to need copies of birth certificates is directly barred by financial restraints from acquiring it.

There are two main problems with the payment requirement for birth certificate copies: voter identification laws and employment requirements. An individual without formal identification may not be allowed to vote in the majority of states nor can they be legally employed. Regardless of the legal arguments supporting both of the above issues, identification rules fundamentally target people of lower socioeconomic status. Those who cannot afford a birth certificate copy often cannot vote and cannot be hired. The cost realities of birth certificate copies purposefully limit the civic activities of the low-income population.

Voter identification laws have been a hotly contested political issue since Indiana first enacted them in 2006. The idea behind the laws is to combat voter fraud by requiring voters to present a government issued ID before they vote. Opponents argue that these laws target low income, rural, elderly and minority populations. Currently, thirty-one states – including Rhode Island – have voter identification laws.  Those states require voters to present a form of identification that can only be obtained with a copy of a birth certificate like a US Passport, state issued identification card and social security card. The Department of Homeland Security requires employees to prove their identity and citizenship before they begin working. To fulfill this requirement, the I-9 Form allows the use of your birth certificate or the same documents that satisfy voter identification rules. But all of the alternative documents require a copy of a birth certificate to obtain.  In Rhode Island, a citizen must pay $20 to receive a copy of a birth certificate and $26.50 to obtain a state-issued photo identification card. This means that any given person who was never given her birth certificate would be legally required to pay $46.50 to vote and work. The two activities viewed as definitively “American” – voting and working – are the two activities that are directly limited by the cost of birth certificates. The exclusion of low-income individuals from two of the most basic civic rights is a major problem at the local government level.

For people for whom $46.50 is a comfortable purchase, the birth certificate copy issue is a non-issue. But for people for whom $46.50 is a considerable purchase, this birth certificate copy issue poses a major problem to their ability to participate in civic and societal life. Using the poverty line as a bright-line for individuals who would be at a disadvantage to obtain a birth certificate copy, we can gain insight into which demographic groups are most affected. For the United States as a whole, 13% of people under the poverty line are white, 35% are black and 33% are Hispanic. In Rhode Island, the numbers are generally reflective of the national trend: 12% are white, 38% are black and 41% are Hispanic. This means that, in the United States, the costs associated with the required documentation to vote and work disproportionately affect minority groups.

The policy incentivizes low income, minority populations to not vote. Not only is that contradictory to a democratic government’s purpose, it also precipitates a host of political issues. One of the most obvious matters is that the demographic most disadvantaged by existing voter ID laws are also more likely to vote for a Democratic candidate. Voter ID policies also create a cycle of unemployment for low income, minority populations. They cannot earn money to purchase a birth certificate copy because they are unemployed, but they also cannot be employed without a birth certificate copy.

The inherent inequality from charging individuals for birth certificate copies could be ameliorated through a policy that eliminates the copy fee. While there may be financial constraints on the policy, the inequality must be addressed somehow. A new system could charge individuals of a certain income level and not those below that income level. Whether this policy is adopted or not, it is imperative that local governments address this matter which precipitates blatant prejudice. Charging for birth certificate copies perpetuates racism and classism by limiting voting and employment opportunities.  Requiring individuals to purchase copies of their birth certificate encourages inequality and is fundamentally unjust.

About the Author

A member of the Class of 2017, Brenna is concentrating in Public Policy and Economics.