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Say hello to the genealogical community’s Public Enemy No. 1.

Michael Astrue

Commissioner Michael Astrue

The man pictured to the left is Michael J. Astrue, Commissioner of Social Security. And he’s out to get us.

More specifically, he’s out to get our access to the Social Security Death Index (SSDI) and to the social security records that underlie the index, such as all those wonderful SS-5 forms (applications for a Social Security number) that we use all the time as evidence in place of the birth records that — for most of two or three generations — just don’t exist and the death records we’re not allowed to see.

If you don’t believe me that he’s out to get us, take a gander at the video clip Michael John Neill has posted on his website Astrue isn’t bothered one bit about closing off records for 10 years… or 75 years. After all, he says, genealogists can get the information they need from other sources. We’re just overreacting.

Folks, make no mistake: Astrue would be perfectly happy closing off the SSDI, and he wouldn’t stop there. Read his formal statement to the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Social Security when it held a hearing on the bill by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas) to close the SSDI. I highlighted this comment in my report on the hearing, and I’ll highlight it again:

“Trying to keep up with individual FOIA requests for information on millions of deceased individuals is a resource issue at a time when the agency is struggling to keep up with rising demand for services in a time of dwindling resources.”

Note that he never mentions that we pay for each and every one of those FOIA requests. You’d think if resources were really an issue, the agency would just increase the price, wouldn’t you? And how about transferring the records of deceased individuals to the National Archives when they’re not being used by Social Security anymore? Wouldn’t either of those be better solutions?

Now before the loonies come out of the woodwork, kindly note that no, Commissioner Astrue is not an Obama appointee and, no, he was not put into office to hide the truth about Obama’s birth certificate or Obama’s social security number. He was appointed in 2007 by President Bush and before that he served in both the Reagan and Bush Administrations.1 And the bill he’s supporting was introduced by a Texas Republican. So enough with the conspiracy theories already yet!

Back to business here. You know what those individual FOIA requests are that Astrue wants to stop? They’re the ones you file and I file asking for the SS-5 forms. But hey… we don’t need these, right? We have lots of ways to get the information we need. Sure we do. And I have a bridge to sell you. It’s a great bridge. It’s right on the waterfront. In Arizona.

There’s a bit of a mystery about my Alabama-born maternal great grandmother (who was her father? what maiden name did she use?). My grandmother’s birth and death records might help solve the mystery. But my grandmother was born in Texas in 1898. There are no Texas birth records between 1876 and 1903.2 She died in Virginia in 1995. Under Virginia law, I am not closely related enough to be entitled to get a copy of her death certificate.3 Thank heavens I have living aunts and uncles. But what if I didn’t? Mr. Commissioner, just what other easy source of information do I have?

There’s an even bigger mystery about my father’s German-born relatives who emigrated to the United States. They’re all in Chicago until the late 1940s, and then — just after my own paternal grandparents died — they all completely disappear from the records. My father is long gone, there are no family records that even hint at what happened. Did they go back to Germany after the war? Move to South America? Settle somewhere else in the United States? Where do I start looking, Mr. Commissioner, if you close off my chances to find the one great aunt who lived long enough to make it into the SSDI… and whose one line of information gave me the clue I needed to find a mass migration to sunny southern California?

I did some research for my brother-in-law last year. His grandfather was born in Virginia in 1898. Guess what, Mr. Commissioner? No birth records on him either — they don’t exist between 1896 and 19124 — and my brother-in-law isn’t eligible to get a copy of his death certificate. Where does my brother-in-law turn?

And these are the easy cases, Mr. Commissioner. What about the estate cases where there’s real hard cold cash available for American families if only the many forensic genealogists who research probate matters for lawyers and courts are allowed to do the work they need to do to find those families? Can they wait 10 to 75 years? And what about the really hard cases? What about the forensic genealogists working day in and day out to bring the remains of service members home to their families? They need those records every day to make the links to living family members. You want them to wait 75 years, Mr. Commissioner? Do you really want them to wait even another 10 years?

Look. I teach law students practical skills, including how to answer questions asked by judges. I always advise my students not to start an answer with the phrase “with all due respect.” Why? It sounds good, doesn’t it? Nice and polite?

The fact is, it usually annoys the judge who asked the question, who knows darn good and well that what the person really means is, “Boy, are YOU full of it!”

So, with all due respect, Mr. Commissioner, I beg to differ with you on the value of the SSDI and SS-5 forms to genealogists. And I’m planning on continuing to “overreact” as much as necessary to protect our access to this information.

Anybody who agrees with me should stand up and be counted. Start now by adding your signature the RPAC petition to stop identity theft by using the records, not hiding them. (Read more about it here, and talk to your family and friends — RPAC needs a total of 25,000 signatures by March 8th.)

And speak up to save our access to the SSDI.


  1. “Michael J. Astrue,” Press Office, Social Security Online ( : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
  2. Vital Statistics, About County Records, Texas State Library and Archives Commission ( : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
  3. 12 Virginia Administrative Code, Chap. 550, 12VAC5-550-5 (defining immediate family as mother, father, sibling, current spouse and adult children) and 12VAC5-550-470 (death certificate limited to immediate family) ( : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
  4. See “Using Vital Statistics Records in the Archives at the Library of Virginia,” Library of Virginia, Research Notes Number 2 ( : accessed 15 Feb 2012).
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