Don’t Cry About the SSDI

Last spring we did a two part series on the Social Security Death Index and it progenitor, the Death Master File. The posts are here and here. The series was prompted in part by reports of errors in the Death Master file, especially those which reported living persons as deceased.

We learned that nearly 90% of the information in the DMF comes from “first-party” reporters, that is, family, friends and funeral homes. About 5% of the information comes from States and federal agencies and the remaining 5% from postal authorities and financial institutions.

In terms of errors, the Inspector General of the Social Security Administration reported in 2009 that 89% of the errors in the DMF were the fault of SSA staff input mistakes. First-party errors comprised between 3.4% and 4.1% of the errors. The lowest error rates were from state reports (0.7% for non-electronically transmitted records) and 1.5% for states enrolled in SSA’s Electr9nid data records program. [The VA also had an error rate of 0.7%].

Now, as of November 1, 2011, SSA will no longer include state records in the Death Master File. Much has been written about this, including its potential impact on genealogists.

To understand what has happened, it is useful to examine the history and the legislation on the topic. The Death Master File was made public in 1980 as a result of a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). We’ve talked about FOIA as a genealogical tool in this space before. See the posts Getting Info from the Government–FOIA 101, FOIA Spotlight: The U.S Deparrtment of State,  and My FOIA Request Update.

The purpose of FOIA is to make available federal government information to the public. There are numerous exemptions to FOIA. The 1978 lawsuit, Perholtz v. Ross, in the U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia was settled by a consent decree between the Government and plaintiff Perholtz, who apparently sought the SSA’s death information to sell to businesses that might have need to verify deaths.

The first point is, then, that the DMF hasn’t really been public very long. The second is that from 1980 to 2002, state information was not used in the DMF. In 2002, in part in response to a 1998 SSA IG report, the SSA started down the road of electronic reporting from states. By 2008, only 22 states participated in the SSA’s Electronic Data Reporting (EDR) project.

The third point concerns why the SSA has withdrawn state records from the public DMF. The law which authorized the SSA to compile death information in the first place was intended to prevent overpayments and fraud in federal benefit programs.  The statute is codified at Title 42, United States Code, section 405(r)[originally section 205r of the Social Security Act of 1935]. The law requires  the SSA to establish a program under which States voluntarily contract with the SSA to periodically furnish the SSA with information on the death certificates filed with them so that necessary corrections may be made to the beneficiary records maintained under the social security program. This provision was added as part of the Social Security Amendments of 1983, Public Law 98-21.

But part of the 1983 Amendments provided that:
Information furnished to the Commissioner of Social Security under this subsection may not be used for any purpose other than the purpose described in this subsection and is exempt from disclosure under section 552 of title 5 and from the requirements of section 552a of such title.

The reference to section 552 is to FOIA; section 552a is the Privacy Act. The 1983 amendments took state-provided information out of the realm of public record as an acknowledgement of differing state rules about the privacy of such information.

As much as I hate to see governmental restrictions on what ought to be public information, I can’t say that this restriction will have a significant impact on genealogy.  Recall that 90% of the data in the DMF comes from first-party reporters, not states. So at least 90% of the data is unaffected. Some genealogists may have to dig a bit deeper into other sources in some cases. Recall also that states differ concerning the restrictions on vital records. Thus, in some cases, what’s no longer easily gotten via the SSDI, may still be relatively available from state sources. And even though the SSA is going to pull existing state records from the DMF, that does not invalidate the data. Nor in my opinion should make that data non-citeable. The citation should include the date the information was obtained from the SSDI and the source of the SSDI (remembering the distinction between the SSDI and the DMF).

Craig


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