Commentary

‘Deadbeat Dad’ Database Endangers Everyone

This article originally appeared in Investors Business Daily.

In a well-meaning effort to catch “deadbeat dads,” Republicans added a measure to the ‘96 Welfare Reform Act to set up a national database that will catch everyone — even those who aren’t deadbeats or dads.

The new system will certainly track down parents who don’t pay child support. But the law, however effective, is a dangerous extension of federal power that will ultimately be misused. Congress shot a blunderbuss, with every working American a target.

Hitting up deadbeat dads — and deadbeat moms as the case may be — would seem to hold great promise. Even if the amount of child support collected is small, the simple act of holding deadbeat dads liable should make them ponder more carefully their decision to have children.

The problem of welfare is at bottom a problem of fathers. Children in female-headed households are more likely to live in poverty. Such families are more likely to collect public assistance. And men who aren’t held responsible for fathering children are more likely to sire illegitimate children.

The database idea has precedent. California passed a law in ‘92 requiring companies with five or more employees in 17 different industries to report all new hires within 30 days who are older than l8 and earn more than $300 a month. Firms had to include the workers’ names and Social Security numbers. (So much for the old promise never to use Social Security numbers for anything other than Social Security.)


People’s privacy is already under assault at almost every turn. The deadbeat dad registry demonstrates yet again how it is government that most threatens our freedom.


Coneress voted in ‘96 to take the California program national. Now all the states must create comparable systems. All companies must report the names and Social Security numbers of new hires and reported deadbeats, along with the date they started work, within 20 calendar days. Come May 1, states will also have to compare Social Security numbers of new hires and reported deadbeats.

That’s all well and good. But where in the Constitution does Washington get the power to order states to create employment databases?

Congress is run by Republicans who regularly proclaim states’ rights and inveigh against unfunded mandates Yet here they’ve passed a serious intrusion into states’ rights and an enormous expansion of unfunded mandates.

And is it appropriate to impose such a regulatory burden on private business? The cost may be modest compared to many other federal dictates. But the cumulative effect of these rules is immense

A Federally mandated employment database is inconsistent with a free society. Government should not know where everyone in America works. Nor should government be able to track people as they change jobs. A truly limited national government of enumerated powers has no authority to force every company across the nation to turn in a list of its new employees.

Knowledge of everyone’s employment could be a powerful tool for social control. Once such a list exists, politicians will be tempted to expand its uses. Indeed, Congress ordered that the hiring data also be used to verify eligibility for other welfare programs, as well as for managing state employment security and workers’ compensation programs. And lawmakers will be tempted to create other lists — perhaps of people who purchase guns, contract serious diseases, attend particular schools, lose court judgments, run up bad debts and so on. All of them could serve one useful purpose or another. But all would pose a serious threat to freedom.

People’s privacy is already under assault at almost every turn. The deadbeat dad registry demonstrates yet again how it is government that most threatens our freedom.

Congress should rescind the State Directory of New Hires. Repealing this law may cost the government some money. But our liberty is too precious to sell for a few pieces of silver.

Today the list is being used for a good cause. Next time, the government’s intention may not be so benign.

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute