Published March 7, 2017

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Just about any time to you want to find an appropriately cynical quote about something that has gone awry, the late H.L. Mencken will come to your rescue.

In the case of what genealogists call the Social Security Death Index (but to its producer, the Social Security Administration, is known as the “Death Master File,” I trot out one of his most famous, that “there is always a well-known solution to every human problem — neat, plausible, and wrong.”

The Social Security Death Index was first released to the public in 1980. For a good generation-and-a-half of genealogists, it was the go-to database for death dates and further information.

While not everyone was listed – most prominently those without Social Security Numbers (a rarity today but more common before more people were brought under Social Security’s wing in the 1960s) and those who died before they collected from the retirement program – it’s estimated that about 95 percent of all American deaths today are now reported in it.

Dick Eastman’s online blog recently highlighted a posting from Fred Moss of the Records Preservation and Access Committee, a joint committee of the Federation of Genealogical Societies, the National Genealogical Society, and the International Association of Jewish Genealogical Societies.

Moss’s post was titled “How Did the Congress Get So Far Off Track?” and that’s where Mencken’s quote comes in.

Several years ago, Congress panicked when tax identity theft skyrockets and access to the death index was blamed.

In fact, keeping the death index public was an excellent tool for preventing identity theft since it could be searched to see if dead people’s numbers were being used on tax returns or other fraudulent purposes.

Unfortunately, that pertinent usefulness was drowned out by – wait for it! wait for it! – a “fix” that would clearly qualify as a Menckenian solution in need of his “neat, plausible and wrong” label.

In 2013, Congress reduced access to the most recent entries in the death index, imposed exorbitant costs on those it agreed to certify to have access to the recent information and just overall created an administrative nightmare for genealogists.

More than three years later, we’re left with a world that has more ID theft than ever before … helping prove to anyone who’s watching that the death index had nothing to do with facilitating ID theft.

But who’s watching? Well, that Records Preservation and Access Committee, for one. Writing to your House or Senate members in Washington would help them know that other people are watching, too.