Almost every American old enough to read has at least heard of Social Security, and with good reason: it’s been a massive part of the United States’ social safety net for three quarters of a century. The program is so ubiquitous that Social Security Numbers (“SSNs”) have become one of the primary ways that United States citizens identify themselves in official proceedings and transactions with the government.
So how would the community of superheroes and other meta-humans interact with this massive legal edifice? A lot of that is going to depend on just how open a character wants to be about their identity.
I. Social Security Numbers
One’s SSN is intimately connected to one’s legal identity. It is a unique identifier associated with one’s legal status, and without one (or a Taxpayer Identification Number), the federal government isn’t necessarily going to be totally sure that you exist, bureaucratically speaking. It’s how taxes are tracked, and it’s very difficult to engage in even the most routine government transactions without one. The statute which creates them is 42 U.S.C. § 405.
All of which conspires to make the SSN an essential part of constructing an alter ego. Of course, forging them is a crime, and just running the numbers there’s a one in three chance that whatever number you just make up is going to be currently in use by someone else (though it’s actually even greater than that given the rules for valid SSNs).
The other completely ubiquitous part of Social Security is taxes. Social Security taxes are imposed by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act, better known as FICA, and codified at 26 U.S.C. §§ 3101—3128. At the moment, the Social Security tax rate is 6.2% of gross income, plus another 6.2% contributed by employers, so really 12.4%, only you never even see half of it. The self-employed must pay both halves out of their own pocket, hence self-employment taxes, but the difference is more one of perception than reality.
Either way, if you make money by working, i.e. you earn a wage or salary, the government wants its cut, and the IRS doesn’t much care who you are. To quote the Joker from a late Golden Age/early Silver Age story, “I’m crazy enough to take on Batman, but the IRS? No, thank you!” If you’re earning money, and it’s more than a couple of grand a year, the IRS will eventually find out. So unless a character is independently wealthy–which means he’ll be paying taxes in other ways, just not FICA–it’s going to be very, very hard to evade Social Security taxes for very long.
Then there’s the question of benefits. Right now, every American over the age of 67 (lower in some cases) can collect old-age benefits. Fair enough. But the actuarial tables for calculating benefits, taxes, budgets, etc. are predicated on most people dying within a decade of their seventy-fifth (or so) birthday. Wolverine could theoretically have been collecting Social Security–assuming he got his citizenship status worked out–almost since the program was inaugurated!
This is problematic for two reasons. One, when the government is cutting you a check every month, that’s one more month where someone might notice that you’re still around. A situation in Japan where hundreds of elderly people collecting old-age pensions were discovered to be missing, sometimes for decades, illustrates that while the machinery of bureaucracy does have a lot of inertia, people living beyond their nineties is still quite unusual and does raise red flags. (It also may help explain why the Japanese life expectancy is so high; maybe they simply aren’t recording deaths. But that’s neither here nor there.) So a character who is either immortal or has a longer than normal lifespan will almost certainly get noticed sooner or later. Whether or not the character minds is dependent upon the facts of their particular story, but this could be problematic for many characters.
But second, Social Security was intended as a sort of last-resort measure to prevent the elderly from becoming destitute. It doesn’t really work that way anymore, as those people who have to rely solely upon Social Security pretty much are destitute, and plenty of people who don’t need the money at all still collect benefits for decades, but that’s still the theory. The discovery of a group of people who aren’t going to die at all, or who at best are going to collect benefits for fifty plus years is likely to encourage Congress to take a long, hard look at establishing some kind of limitation on the ability of people to collect benefits forever. Depending on just how bad the budgetary situation is at that time, this could be as little as a fix to exclude the truly immortal or as draconian as limiting benefits to three decades for everyone. But some kind of Congressional action does seem pretty likely, and the existence of immortals among us might just be sufficiently distressing to the American population to give Congress the inertia it needs to actually do something about the program’s bleeding balance sheet.
The fact that even in the stories that contain the largest number of immortal beings–Highlander, anyone?–there are little more than a few hundred in the entire world is not likely to mitigate this fear either. The American media and populace are terrible at issues of scale. This, of course, is just one more reason immortals might want to keep their existence hidden, which means taking pains to conceal their longevity and identity. Simply declining to accept the benefits is probably insufficient to head off Congressional action too, since not every immortal is likely to be so charitable.
In addition to the critical nature of SSNs in today’s increasingly connected and bureaucratic society, Social Security–and similar programs–represents a massive legal machine which superheroes must at least contemplate if they are to exist in society, especially if they are immortal or extremely long-lived. Thought must be given to the way they approach the identification, taxation, and benefits issues presented by the program.