Supers and Social Security

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).

II. Taxes

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.

III. Benefits

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.

IV. Conclusion

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.

16 Responses to Supers and Social Security

  1. Robert Heinlein mentioned the “identity problem” for Lazarus Long; as society got more and more bureaucratic, it became harder and harder to establish a new identity when he’d worn out the old. Roger Zelazny, in My Name is Legion, populated an entire book with the different identites of the man who found the way around that.

    • Of course, in Zelazny’s case that required the protagonist to physically compromise one of the computers that handled the data and he didn’t totally escape detection (though that was more due to getting noticed dealing with a political incident).

  2. Social Security Benefits lead me to wonder could an immortal be forced into retirement? Some factors that lead to forced retirement (medical premiums, productivity, etc.) are not an issue for the forever young group of immortals.

    I imagine a simple 401K running for several generatiosn would be worth considerably more then social security. (side note: How would disability benefits factor with an immortal? I recall some instances of immoratls suffering crippling injuries)

  3. Wolverine being a past covert operative – and before that, a soldier – under his “Logan” identity for both Washington and Ottawa, would have had federal arrangements made on his behalf on both sides of the border long before this. I doubt that he has many problems with either Social Security or his Social Insurance Number on the Canadian side of the border. He may even have had exemptions from retirement laws for all we know!

    Ellen raises an interesting point by implication for the many identities in multiple nations of J’Onn J’Onzz – AKA the Martian Manhunter – as established by writer John Ostrander.

  4. The idea of obtaining an SSN shouldn’t be that big of a problem for most of the superheroes. Many of them are born within the borders of the United Steates and are citizens of the nation automatically (For example, Cannonball would have an SSN as a natural-born citizen). Certainly Congress has the power to exclude illegal aliens from participating in Social Security and thus immortals/extraordinarily long-lived individuals coming from outside the United States would have to apply for the citizenship before even being able to collect. Therefore, someone like Hercules that choses to do be open about his abilities then faces the possibility that the budgetary impact of granting him citizenship could serve as a bar.

    The sticky area, as this article notes, is those superpowered immigrants that wish to hide their powers, yet still integrate into society.

    Moreover, would depriving citizen superheroes the right to continue to collect Social Security even be permissible? As citizens of the United States, these individuals would still be entitled to equal protection under the law and have the right to due process before the may be deprived of the rights and privileges of a US citizen. Even if Congress moved to cap their benefits, a superhero would certainly be able to bring an action challenging this law into court.

  5. I don’t think the equal protection thing would come up; I’d think Congress could easily pass a law saying “Social Security benefits will only be paid out for X number of years” that technically applies to everybody even if only immortals will get tripped up by the rule. If they specifically said “if you’re immortal no Social Security at all for you!” then I’d think that could kick in of course. Honestly though depending on how long the person in question has been alive the wonders of compound interest could make SS or even a 401K look pathetic.

    • It’s hard to say. Ordinarily laws that discriminate on the basis of age receive fairly weak review. The theory is that everybody ages, so everybody will eventually be impacted by the law at some point in their lives (ignoring those who die young). But immortals really throw a wrench into that rationale, especially if a given law would really only affect the supernaturally long-lived (e.g., no Social Security benefits past age 140, far beyond the life span of even the most long-lived ordinary person).

      • A law based on a set life span theoretically outside the limits of human capacity would probably start running into problems in possibly as little as half a century. With better living conditions, medical standards, prosthetics and better ability to mitigate the effects of aging I wouldn’t be too surprised if a large part of the population starts living well past age 100.

    • The use of compound interest by immortals is so common as to be a cliche, but I’m not convinced it’d work. In order for it to work, even barring situations like sudden bank failures or economic disruptions, you’d have to be able to get an interest rate that consistently exceeds the inflation rate.

  6. an obvious question here – if the superhero has a legacy of regenerating/reincarnating – as opposed to multiple identities. would they need a ssn?

    if they are immortal surely they would find ways to be self sufficient – cash only or something. this they would then avoid the need for any govt. intervention at all. by paying cash in relatively small amounts for what you need why would you need govt intervention/assistance or at least keep it to a minimum.

    also dont forget that some super heros self heal – so if they got a major injury surely this could be passed off ‘as a flu/cold?’ – and thus not relying on any major health care – also im pretty certain that some would be sufficient enough in self care.

    • If they are immortal by reincarnation then they pretty much bypass the problem entirely. They just get a new (and entirely valid) SS number every time they come back to life.

  7. On the Japanese I’m afraid you understated the incident. The number they could not confirm was actually roughly 230,000. No offense is intended to you but I felt that to lose track of that many should indicate something about the state of Japanese bureaucracy.

    Time for the next pestering question. In comic books there are many characters (mostly villains) who are able to take another person’s appearance. How exactly would courts be likely to handle defenses claiming that it was actually a shape shifter/illusionist/etc who had committed the crime? Would the burden of proof fall on the defense?

  8. The Avengers are funded by the Maria Stark Foundation which sounds like a charitable organization. One could imagine the Avengers getting audited. Back in the eighties the active members of the Avenges got a weekly stipend of one thousand dollars and even non active members like Hawkeye were getting checks ($100 a month) to compensate them in case they were needed for an emergency. An Avenger could go to the bank and cash a check and the check would be made out to “Hawkeye” or “Tigra” and not to Clint Barton or Greer Grant Nelson. Now, this would be problematic, of course, if the hero also earned money in his or her civilian identity. An Avenger could avoid this hassle by refusing the stipend but the government would want to know who you really were as soon as you started getting a paycheck, right?

    Oh I found a link. http://marvel.wikia.com/Avengers_Charter

    • The check being made out to, for example, “Hawkeye” is not in itself a problem. There is no legal requirement that a check be payable to a person’s real name. It’s sufficient that the bearer of the check be able to convince the bank that he or she is the payee. So if the bank knows Hawkeye and he walks in with a check made out to “Hawkeye,” the bank will cash it for him. Hawkeye then takes the cash, walks to a different bank, and deposits it into Clint Barton’s account.

      But yes, taxation would be a problem. $100/month is well below the reporting requirement if that’s all the income you make, but $52,000/year is well outside that. One possible solution is for the civilian identity to report the superhero income as independent contractor income. The IRS doesn’t require a lot of detail about your job (unless you get audited), so that could work. The Maria Stark Foundation could pay a bunch of non-superheroes similar amounts to mask who was getting paid for what.

      • Martin Phipps

        I think it would be simpler for Hawkeye to just have his identity publicly known. If the checks were made out to Hawkeye then he’d have to show up at the bank in costume and show his Avengers ID card but if people knew that Clint Barton was Hawkeye then he wouldn’t have to walk to the bank wearing a mask and then simply transfer the money directly to his regular savings account. Back when Hawkeye was a reserve Avenger they were sending him cheques to his home address and if he was paying rent at the same address as Clint Barton and he was worried about his identity being compromised you’d think he’d just show up at Avengers Mansion and pick the cheques up himself.

        If you go down the Avengers lineup, most of them are not regular humans but gods (Thor, Hercules, Ares, etc.) who wouldn’t need civilian identities. Indeed, Ares was recruited in Mighty Avengers #1 after it was learned he was working in New York City doing construction. Either everybody knew he was the Greek God Ares or they just didn’t care as long as he could do the job. Even before Civil War a lot of Avengers went public: Simon Williams (Wonderman) did it so he could get work as a movie stuntman and, supposedly, not have to worry about taxes.

        Curiously, Amazing Spiderman #1 had a scene where Spiderman went to a bank and tried to cash a cheque made out to Spiderman but the bank refused to cash it even after Spiderman crawled around the walls and shot his webbing. The bank claimed that the cheque had to be made out in his real name. Two decades later, in Avengers #215, Tigra showed up at a bank with a cheque made out to Tigra but then showed her Avengers ID which meant the bank had to accept her cheque because she had identification to prove she was who she claimed to be. Then in Avengers #235, She Hulk told Spiderman about the $1000 monthly stipend and he then petitioned to join the Avengers. Ironically, he joined the Avengers thinking that he would not be compelled to reveal his identity but during Civil War Tony Stark compelled him to do just that. (Nowadays the general public has forgotten that Spiderman is Peter Parker.)

  9. To follow up, $100 a month doesn’t sound like much. Back in the eighties, would Hawkeye have gotten a better deal if he had claimed unemployment benefits?

    Hawkeye’s financial situation has been a long time concern for readers. See
    http://www.pixel-cel.com/weirdwithoutend/?p=117

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