TIME Social Security

Flawed Social Security Data Says 6.5 Million in U.S. Reach Age 112

Social Security I.D. Cards
Duckycards—Getty Images Social Security Cards

In reality, there are only 42 people that old worldwide

(WASHINGTON D.C.) — Americans are getting older, but not this old: Social Security records show that 6.5 million people in the U.S. have reached the ripe old age of 112.

In reality, only few could possibly be alive. As of last fall, there were only 42 people known to be that old in the entire world.

But Social Security does not have death records for millions of these people, with the oldest born in 1869, according to a report by the agency’s inspector general.

Only 13 of the people are still getting Social Security benefits, the report said. But for others, their Social Security numbers are still active, so a number could be used to report wages, open bank accounts, obtain credit cards or claim fraudulent tax refunds.

“That is a real problem,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis. “When you have a fake Social Security number, that’s what allows you to fraudulently do all kinds things, claim things like the earned income tax credit or other tax benefits.”

Johnson is chairman of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, which plans a hearing Monday on problems with death records maintained by the Social Security Administration.

The agency said it is working to improve the accuracy of its death records. But it would be costly and time-consuming to update 6.5 million files that were generated decades ago, when the agency used paper records, said Sean Brune, a senior adviser to the agency’s deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management.

“The records in this review are extremely old, decades-old, and unreliable,” Brune said.

The internal watchdog’s report does not document any fraudulent or improper payments to people using these Social Security numbers. But it raises red flags that it could be happening.

For example, nearly 67,000 of the Social Security numbers were used to report more than $3 billion in wages, tips and self-employment income from 2006 to 2011, according to the report. One Social Security number was used 613 different times. An additional 194 numbers were used at least 50 times each.

People in the country illegally often use fake or stolen Social Security numbers to get jobs and report wages, as do other people who do not want to be found by the government. Thieves use stolen Social Security numbers to claim fraudulent tax refunds.

The IRS estimated it paid out $5.8 billion in fraudulent tax refunds in 2013 because of identity theft. The head of the Justice Department’s tax division described how it’s done at a recent congressional hearing.

“The plan is frighteningly simple — steal Social Security numbers, file tax returns showing a false refund claim, and then have the refunds electronically deposited or sent to an address where the offender can access the refund checks,” said acting Assistant Attorney General Caroline Ciraolo.

In some cases, she said, false tax returns are filed using Social Security numbers of deceased taxpayers or others who are not required to file.

The Social Security Administration generates a list of dead people to help public agencies and private companies know when Social Security numbers are no longer valid for use. The list is called the Death Master File, which includes the name, Social Security number, date of birth and date of death for people who have died.

The list is widely used by employers, financial firms, credit reporting agencies and security firms. Federal agencies and state and local governments rely on it to police benefit payments.

But none of the 6.5 million people cited by the inspector general’s report was on the list. The audit analyzed records as of 2013, looking for people with birth dates before 1901.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act in 1935, and the first old-age monthly benefit check was paid in 1940.

Many of the people cited in the inspector general’s report never received benefits, though they were assigned Social Security numbers so spouses and children could receive them, presumably after they died.

The agency says it has corrected death information in more than 200,000 records. But fixing the entire list would be costly and time-consuming because Social Security needs proof that a person is dead to add them to the death list, said Brune, the agency official.

Brune noted that the inspector general’s report did not verify that any of the 6.5 million people are actually dead. Instead, the report assumed they are dead because of their advanced age.

“We can’t post information to our records based on presumption,” Brune said. “We post information to our records based on evidence, and in this case it would be evidence of a death certificate.”

“Some of those records may not even exist,” Brune added.

Nearly all the Social Security numbers are from paper records generated before the agency started using electronic records in 1972, Brune said. Many of the records contain errors, with multiple birthdates and bits of information about different family members.

“We did transcribe paper records into the electronic system and over time that information’s been purified,” Brune said.

“But our focus right now is to make sure our data is as accurate and complete as it can be for our current program purpose,” said Brune. “Right now, we’re focused on making sure we’re paying beneficiaries properly, and that’s how we’re investing our resources at this time.”

TIME Government

Americans Still Think Government Is Their Biggest Problem, Poll Shows

capitol-building
Getty Images

More than terrorism, ISIS and race relations

For the fourth month in a row, Americans have voted that the government is the biggest problem currently facing the United States.

According to a recent Gallup poll, 18% of Americans surveyed named the government as the most important U.S. problem, followed by 11% who named the economy in general and 10% who said unemployment. These beat out terrorism, ISIS and race relations on the survey.

Despite concerns about the government, 31% of Americans surveyed said they were satisfied with the direction of the country, well above its low of 7% in late 2008 during the economic crisis.

Read next: How Mexican Immigration to the U.S. Has Evolved

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

MONEY winter

Sick of Clearing the Snow? Failure to Do So Could Cost Even More

150304_EM_snow_1
Steven Senne/ASSOCIATED PRESS

It's been a stormy winter for much of the country, so it's understandable if you're tired of clearing snow off your car and sidewalk. But there's more reason than ever to handle these chores like a good citizen.

Earlier this winter—before we knew just how bad of a winter it would be—we ran a post about why it is so essential to shovel your walkway after it snows. The reasons start with getting hit with local fines for failing to clear snow and ice, and they end with the possibility of being sued for hundreds of thousands of dollars if someone falls and gets injured on your property.

In Boston, which is on the verge of crossing the mark for having snowiest winter on record, Mayor Martin Walsh plans on increasing the fine fivefold for property owners who don’t clear their sidewalks or snow and ice, or who push snow into the streets. The highest possible fine could be $1,500, up from the current maximum of $300, if Walsh can convince the city council to get on board with the idea at a meeting on Wednesday, the Boston Globe reported. If property owners don’t pay the fines, they would simply be added to the owner’s property tax bills.

“Failing to remove snow from a sidewalk puts lives at danger. It’s a problem for every pedestrian, but it is especially difficult for our children, for the disabled, and for the elderly to face deep, unshoveled sidewalks, and be forced to walk in the road,” Walsh said in a press release. “I urge the City Council and state officials to move this legislation which grants us the authority to deter these violations, hold accountable those who are guilty, and recoup some of the added costs that these violations create.”

Getting sidewalks cleared of snow and ice has also proven to be a problem in many parts of New York City, especially in neighborhoods overrun with foreclosed properties and vacant buildings, where it’s sometimes impossible to track down who, if anyone, is the owner. According to a New York Times analysis, 331 tickets for failure to clear snow off sidewalks have been issued to just 10 notorious properties in the Bronx. The Bronx has been hit with the most fines per capita (more than 10,000 violations), though Brooklyn and Queens properties have received more tickets overall, with 14,000 and 13,000, respectively.

Meanwhile, in places like northeast Ohio, unshoveled sidewalks and walkways are causing a host of problems, including disputes among neighbors and gripes from elderly residents about the unfairness of fines. In some cases, the United States Postal Service has even stopped delivering the mail to residences where sidewalks, walkways, or streets are clogged with snow and ice.

Your obligation to clear snow doesn’t stop at the edge of your property, however. Laws have been passed in New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Connecticut, among other places, requiring drivers to clear snow from cars before heading out onto roads. In the latter, drivers face fines up to $1,000 if snow or ice flies off your vehicle and causes damage to another car or motorist, but in most cases, the fine would be a flat $75.

There’s also a bill currently under consideration in Pennsylvania that would allow police to pull over cars and trucks if the vehicle is covered in ice or snow that “may pose a threat to persons or property,” regardless of whether or not any damage has been caused. If the bill becomes law, drivers would face fines of $25 to $75 for not clearing snow and ice from vehicles. That’s cheap compared to Europe, where failure to clear snow from cars in the Alps could result in a fine of €450, or around $500.

TIME Government

Kayla Mueller’s Father Says U.S. ‘Put Policy in Front of American Citizens’ Lives’

ISIS claims the 26-year-old hostage died in a recent air strike

Slain ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller’s father has accused the Obama administration of putting its policy of not paying ransoms “in front of American citizens’ lives.”

In an exclusive interview with TODAY’s Savannah Guthrie, Carl Mueller said he had mixed feelings about the government’s refusal to negotiate with terrorist groups who kidnapped foreigners. Other Western countries are known to have paid millions to secure the release of their nationals.

“We understand the policy about not paying ransom,” he said. “But on the other hand, any parents out there would understand that you would want anything and everything done to bring your child home…”

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

MONEY Autos

How New York’s Proposed Toll Hikes Stack Up Against Other Cities’

bridges over Hudson river
Brett Beyer—Getty Images

The tolls faced by New York City drivers today are expensive, and could get even pricier if a new proposal on the table is approved. Still, in the grand scheme, the city's tolls are cheap compared to some other places in the world.

This week, a transit advocacy group introduced the Move NY Fair Plan, a proposal to add and tweak driving fees around Manhattan in order to address what it describes as an “unfair, regressive tolling system,” while also easing traffic congestion and raising $1.5 billion annually to fund transportation infrastructure. The gist of the proposal, as summed up by the New York Times, the Times Herald-Record, and others, is that some bridge tolls would get cheaper while a few new tolls would be added according to “a logical formula: higher tolls where transit options are most available and lower tolls where transit is either not available or a less viable option.”

The plan calls for tolls to be added to four bridges that cross the East River but traditionally have been toll-free: Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queensboro, and Williamsburg. Vehicles would also start being hit with a fee when they cross 60th Street northbound or southbound in Manhattan. In both cases, the new tolls would run $5.54 each way for E-ZPass users, and $8 for others. Meanwhile, tolls on a few other New York City bridges, including the Verrazano Narrows, Throgs Neck, and Bronx-Whitestone, would be reduced by $2.50 for E-ZPass holders.

The overarching argument in favor of the changes is that the existing system of tolls and transit fares isn’t sufficient to fund infrastructure needs, and that today’s tolls are just plain unfair. Hence the proposed “Fair Plan.”

But how “fair” would the new tolls be compared to what drivers face elsewhere? The proposal—which for now is just that, a proposal that may not win much support in the city or Albany—would have no effect whatsoever on the bridges and tunnels run by the Port Authority, including the George Washington Bridge and Lincoln and Holland Tunnels, among others. If the plan is approved, the East River Bridge tolls—again, $5.54 each way with E-ZPass, so $11.08 round trip—would be cheaper than a Port Authority bridge or tunnel crossing into New York during peak commuting hours ($11.75), but pricier than an off-peak trip ($9.75).

Among other pricey bridges and tunnels around the U.S. and abroad:

Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel: The $15 toll during peak season (Friday to Monday, May 15 to September 15) is quite pricey, but hey, this engineering wonder connecting Virginia’s Eastern Shore to Hampton Roads and Virginia Beach is 20 miles long.

Golden Gate Bridge: At a cost of $6 to $7 only for cars heading into San Francisco, the Golden Gate doesn’t charge as if it’s one of America’s most famous landmarks.

Whittier Tunnel: This 2.5-mile passage in between Anchorage, Alaska, and Whittier and Prince William Sound is the longest highway tunnel in the U.S., and it only has one lane that must be shared by cars and trains. The cost of driving through in a standard vehicle is $12 one way.

Akashi-Kaikyo Bridge: Also known as Pearl Bridge, Japan’s Akashi-Kaikyo has the world’s longest central span of any suspension bridge, at 1.2 miles. Driving across costs 2,300 Yen, which is around $20 per vehicle today. The toll used to be closer to $30 back in the days when the American dollar wasn’t quite as strong.

Mont Blanc Tunnel: This passage crossing the France-Italy border in the Alps is impressive for two key data points. The tunnel stretches a total of 7.2 miles, and driving through costs about $49 one way.

As for the idea that drivers in the New York City area be charged not for crossing a body of water but simply for entering or exiting Manhattan’s CBD (central business district), Singapore, Milan, London, and Stockholm have had similar toll systems in place for years. London’s “congestion pricing” scheme has been in place since 2003. Back then, the daily charge for driving in central London was £5, or about $7.75 today. The driving surcharge has since increased, hitting £11.50 ($18) last summer.

Compared to that, the $5.54 charge to drive into lower Manhattan just might seem cheap.

TIME Education

Shrinking the Education Gap Would Boost the Economy, Study Says

Students applaud as U.S. President Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester
Kevin Lamarque —Reuters Students applaud as U.S. President Barack Obama arrives to deliver the commencement address at the Worcester Technical High School graduation ceremony in Worcester, Massachusetts June 11, 2014

A modest improvement in the lowest test scores could see GDP rise by $2.5 trillion by 2050

Narrowing the education gap between America’s poor and wealthy school children could accelerate the economy and significantly increase government revenues, according to a new study.

An improvement in the educational performance of the average student will result in “stronger, more broadly shared economic growth, which in turn raises national income and increases government revenue, providing the means by which to invest in improving our economic future,” says the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

The study is based on findings from a 2012 assessment given by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Data showed the U.S. education system performed poorly when compared against the world’s 34 developed nations, ranking below average in mathematics and just average in reading and science.

The Washington Center took America’s test score of 978, and in their most modest scenario boosted the achievement scores of the country’s bottom 75% testers so that the national score reached the worldwide developed nation average of 995 (or roughly equal with France).

This would raise the U.S. GDP by 1.7% by 2050, they found, which, taking inflation into account, would amount to a $2.5 trillion rise or an average of $72 billion extra per year.

The country would also make over $900 billion extra in total federal, local and state revenue.

If the U.S. were able to match Canada’s educational achievement score of 1044, the potential gain would be significantly higher. The study estimates that GDP would grow by 6.7%, equivalent to $10 trillion or about $285 billion per year.

This latter scenario would mean a revenue boost of $3.6 trillion.

The Washington Center said their findings suggest that governmental investments into education would pay for itself in the form of economic growth for many years to come.

TIME Budget

Government Budget Cuts Are Hitting ‘Red’ States Hardest, Say Analysts

A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington
JAMES LAWLER DUGGAN —REUTERS A red traffic light stands in front of the U.S. Capitol building in Washington September 30, 2013, approximately one hour before the U.S. federal government partially shut down after lawmakers failed to compromise on an emergency spending bill

Experts suggest the discrepancy may point to the politicalization of public spending

Recent governmental budget cuts have not been distributed evenly with slashed spending hitting pro-Republican states the hardest, according to new analysis by Reuters.

Funding for a range of discretionary grant programs has fallen 40% in Republican states compared to a drop of only 25% in swing states or states that tend to support the Democrats, claims the news agency.

“I would suggest these numbers would tell us there is politicization going on,” said John Hudak of the Brookings Institution, who helped Reuters analyze the federal spending.

The money that the government allocates to discretionary spending goes to initiatives like the Head Start preschool education scheme and anti-drugs programs.

Read more on the study at Reuters

TIME Government

Government Officials May Be Using Less Mumbo Jumbo

Courtesy of the Center for Plain Language This report card shows how well federal government agencies did in 2014, in terms of speaking plainly when communicating with the public. It was released on Jan. 27, 2015.

"They just don’t write that well"

On Tuesday, the non-profit Center for Plain Language released its third annual report card for federal government agencies. Those who are following the spirit and letter of the Plain Writing Act—a 2010 law designed to eliminate bureaucratic gobbledygook—got A’s. Those who failed to abide and didn’t submit documents to be reviewed earned big fat F’s.

The bad news is that government agencies are still using words like weatherization, gasification, grantsmanship and interdependencies. The good news is that, overall, the average grade is going up, with 16 of 22 departments improving over the previous year’s grades.

That means fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Defense:

The Deputy Secretary, the second-highest ranking official in the DoD, is delegated full power and authority to act for the Secretary and to exercise the powers of the Secretary on any and all matters for which the Secretary is authorized to act.

And more sentences like this, from the Social Security Administration:

You need a Social Security number to get a job, collect Social Security benefits and get some other government services.

As well as fewer sentences like this, from the Department of Education (note, this really is just one sentence):

Comparison teachers included those from traditional routes to certification (those who completed all requirements for certification, typically through an undergraduate or graduate program in education, before they began to teach) and teachers from less selective alternative routes to certification (programs that allowed teachers to begin to teach before completing all requirements for certification, but that were not as selective as TFA and the Teaching Fellows programs).

And more sentences like this, from the Transportation Security Administration:

Fireworks are not permitted in checked or carry-on baggage.

But the Center for Plain Language also did things a little bit differently this time around. Rather than just grading compliance (Does the agency appoint someone to oversee their plain language endeavors? Is there a way for the public to give the agency feedback about their language?), they gave each agency a grade for compliance, writing samples and information design. The latter is a web-inspired category that’s all about using typeface and white space and graphics to make complex ideas easier to digest. In that area, most agencies came away with C’s.

“They just don’t write that well,” Annetta Cheek, co-founder of the Center for Plain Language, says about government employees. “There’s a lot of feeling that if it doesn’t look complex and legal maybe it’s not legal … It’s just counter to the culture of the government, and people struggle to write plainly.” When it comes to visual elements, she says that’s not even on most agencies’ radars. They’re all text and no pictures. “It will be a while before they dig themselves out of the hole and get to the high level that some private sector companies already have,” she says.

Cheek has been lobbying for Washington, D.C., denizens to speak simply with the public for the past 20 years. And she says that despite the government’s taste for overwrought sentences, “we are finally seeing some significant progress.”

The full report card is above. Cheek says that they’ll likely be dropping the compliance grade next year, since almost every agency has figured out how to follow the letter of the law (note all the A’s). And rather than letting the agencies cherry-pick samples to submit—which forces some skepticism about how much these grades really convey—the Center’s researchers will be making their own selections. The grades for writing were determined by feeding example documents through a software program that picked out red flags like long words, needless words and passive verbs. The information design scores were determined by two people independently scoring the documents’ visual elements.

The Act itself doesn’t include a process for oversight, which is why the Center for Plain Language developed this annual process for rewarding straightforward speech and holding jargon-lovers’ feet to the fire.

TIME

U.S. Women Leadership Ranking is Pathetic Compared to Other Countries

Democratic Women
Tom Williams—CQ-Roll Call/Getty Images House Democratic women of the 114th Congress including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, pose for a picture on the House steps of the Capitol, Jan. 7, 2015.

We're not even close to the top

When it comes to women in leadership roles, the U.S. isn’t cutting it.

According to a new comparison by Pew, the U.S. ranks 33rd out of 49 high-income countries when it comes to women in the national legislature (20% of the House and Senate are women). When they expanded the comparison to 137 countries, the U.S. dropped to 83rd (these calculations were made were using data from mid-2014, but even when the most recent Congressional elections are taken into consideration, the U.S. only rises to 75th place.)

We did a little better when it comes to women in cabinet or government managerial positions: the U.S. ranked 25th out of 141 countries, and when the pool was narrowed to high-income countries, we tied for 12th place with Canada.

Pew also tracked “legislators, senior officials, and managers,” a category which includes corporate leaders, heads of nonprofits or unions, and policymakers. Among high-income countries, the U.S. was tied with Barbados, Tobago, and Trinidad for fourth place, but when the comparison was expanded to 125 countries with data available, the U.S. dropped to 16th place.

In other words, for all our striving, we’re not being particularly effective at electing female leaders compared to other countries. Especially compared to Rwanda, where 64% of the seats in the Chamber of Deputies are held by women.

[Pew]

MONEY The Economy

The 2015 State of the Union Address In Under 2 Minutes

President Barack Obama highlighted the recovering economy as well as proposals for free community college, increasing trade with Cuba, and building more infrastructure.

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