November 20, 2018

Birth Certificates

Maybe yours is tucked in a box or filed for safekeeping. The odds are that you have one: a birth certificate. On any given day, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, an estimated 10,800 babies are born in the United States, or one birth every eight seconds. Most, if not all, of them will be issued birth certificates. A birth certificate is a document issued by a government that records the birth of a child for vital statistics, tax, military, and census purposes. The birth certificate is among the first legal documents an individual might acquire. They are so common that we might even overlook their significance. In the United States, birth certificates serve as proof of an individual’s age, citizenship status, and identity. They are necessary to obtain a social security number, apply for a passport, enroll in schools, get a driver’s license, gain employment, or apply for other benefits. Humanitarian Desmond Tutu described the birth certificate as “a small paper, but it actually establishes who you are and gives access to the rights and privileges, and the obligations of citizenship.”

A Decentralized System

In the United States, there is no national (federal) birth registry, as you might see in other nations, such as the United Kingdom. Instead, birth certificates are issued by the states, which are obligated under law to report annual vital statistics data to the federal government. (Note that if a baby is born to American parents overseas, the U.S. Department of State collects that data.) Within each state, the management of birth certificates might be further decentralized, with data collected and certificates issued at the county or municipal level. Birth data is submitted to the state, county, or municipality by parents, doctors, midwives, and hospitals, typically via paper or electronic forms. The state and federal governments use this data to understand population changes, childbirth trends, maternal and fetal health and mortality, new parent demographics, and other trends that inform policymakers.

The documentation of births and other vital statistics (e.g., birth, death, marriage, divorce) has been a long-standing tradition among populations for centuries, typically through individual families or their churches. The idea that a government should also record this vital information is a relatively modern development.

Within this decentralized system, there is not a required standard birth certificate document that states must issue to individuals. The federal government does, however, offer a standard birth certificate application form, the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth, which states use to collect data about individual births. States are then free to produce their own birth certificate documents for distribution to individuals. The federal government issues guidance to the states about what information should appear on the certificates. Both the Standard Certificate of Live Birth and the guidelines about state-issued birth certificate documents are updated periodically, per requirements of the Model State Vital Statistics Act (1959). Under this framework, with one standard birth certificate application form and no standard birth certificate document, the National Center for Health Statistics estimates that there are 14,000 different birth certificate documents circulating in the United States. This “Teaching Legal Docs” will consider both the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth application form and a typical state-issued birth certificate document.

Not a Clear Paper Trail

The documentation of births and other vital statistics (e.g., birth, death, marriage, divorce) has been a long-standing tradition among populations for centuries, typically through individual families or their churches. The idea that a government should also record this vital information is a relatively modern development. The United Kingdom was the first country to mandate collection of birth data at the national level in 1853. The United States began collecting birth data at the national level in 1902, via the U.S. Census. Certain individual states had already been collecting birth data, including Virginia, which began collecting data as a colony in 1632 and Massachusetts in 1639, so it became a matter of getting each state to follow suit. The federal government first developed a standard birth certificate application form in 1907, five years after the Census Bureau began collecting data. The current system of the states collecting data and reporting it to the federal government developed between 1915, when the federal government mandated that states collect and report the data, and 1933, by which time all of the states were participating. In 1946, responsibility for collecting and publishing vital statistics at the national level shifted from the Census Bureau to the national Office of Vital Statistics, which is now the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS). Today, the NCHS is part of the Centers for Disease Control, which is part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Proof of Citizenship

During World War II and the years after, employers increasingly asked prospective employees to offer proof of their citizenship status. Federal employment laws for certain industries, such as aircraft manufacturing, already mandated that employers hire citizens, and many Americans did not have any proof of their citizenship status. Many Americans trying to get jobs in the wartime economy expressed frustration at this seemingly bureaucratic hurdle. One Rhode Island man wrote, “This is America and it’s not right to refuse me a job because I have not got my birth papers. I have a wife and child and I want a job.” Grace Wilson, age 42, from Kansas, hoped to get a job in the aircraft industry but could not even enroll in the training school. “It is a bitter hurt feeling to know you are an American citizen whose grandparents as well as parents also were, and still not be able to establish citizenship.” Birth certificates were acceptable documentation of American citizenship, but many people did not maintain copies. During the period 1940–1945, approximately 43 million Americans, nearly one-third of the working population, filed requests with their states to get a state-certified copy of their birth certificate. In 1942, Good Housekeeping published an article on the importance of getting copies of one’s birth certificate. States struggled to keep up with the demand. By the end of 1942, the War Manpower Commission responded to the national “birth certificate crisis” by announcing that wartime workers no longer needed to show birth certificates or other documentation to prove their citizenship status. Workers could simply swear to their citizenship “in the presence of an Army or Navy plant representative.” Penalties for falsely claiming American citizenship included $10,000 in fines and up to five years in prison. In the years following World War II, employers, schools, and the federal government increasingly relied on birth certificates as documentation for certain activities and benefits. Soldiers needed to show a marriage license and child’s birth certificate in order to secure health coverage for dependents. Public schools required birth certificates for student enrollment. One of the provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was that workers prove their age in order to enter into the labor market, which was a legislative victory reminiscent of Progressive Era reform efforts to eliminate child labor in the United States. By the 1950s, Americans, primarily mothers, understood the importance of registering child births with their state and securing a birth certificate. It became a way to secure their children’s birthright as citizens.

The Birth Certificate

Birth certificates in the United States generally consist of the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth application form, which states use to collect the data to issue a formal birth certificate, and the birth certificate document that states issue to individuals.

Currently, the U.S. Standard Certificate of Live Birth looks like an application, with boxes asking for specific pieces of information. The entire form is two pages long, and consists of 58 questions. (A copy of the full application is available at www.insightsmagazine.org.) The questions concern the newborn child and its mother and father. Concerning the child, the application form asks for a name, date of birth, place of birth, weight, height, and other vital statistics. The form also asks if the child was born in a hospital, if it’s a twin or “multiple,” and if the child was born with any health conditions. Of the mother and father, the form asks for a name, address, and other racial, ethnic, and demographic information. There are also questions about the health of the mother during pregnancy. The Standard Certificate of Live Birth must also be certified by a medical professional who was present at the birth or performed an examination. Typically, the Standard Certificate of Live Birth is completed by the parents of the child, then certified by a medical professional, and submitted to the state, county, or municipality, which will issue the final birth certificate document back to the individual.

The state-issued birth certificate document typically looks very different from the Standard Certificate of Live Birth form. It is usually more formal-looking, printed on thicker paper with the issuing state, county, or municipality’s name and seal clearly visible. There might be a watermark on the page, or signature of a state official. The information that is presented is generally basic, compared to the earlier application form. The birth certificate document will show a person’s name, birthdate, place of birth, and other vital information. The names, addresses, birthdates, and occupations of both the mother and father are typically listed. Typically, the copies of birth certificate documents issued by the state are also certified, which means that they include an embossed seal unique to the issuer (state, county, or municipality) and a signature. Usually when birth certificates are required for identification purposes, they must be certified and include the raised seal in order to be appropriately valid.

Changing a Birth Certificate Document

It is rare that a birth certificate requires a change, but each issuing state, county, or municipality has protocols in place to request changes. The laws about what might be changed, and for what reasons, however, vary from state to state. Sometimes birth certificates contain errors, so the requested change could be a simple correction. Other common birth certificate document changes include name changes, and, increasingly, gender changes. Every state allows for corrections and name changes, but not every state will allow for a change of gender on a birth certificate. It is important to contact the issuing state, county, or municipality about changes to a birth certificate. Typically, each state’s website will offer contact information for changing a birth certificate, usually through a vital statistics, department of health, or secretary of state’s office.

Requesting a Copy of a Birth Certificate Document

Requests for copies of a birth certificate are far more common than changes to a birth certificate document. Much like the protocols in place to request changes, each state has protocols in place for requesting copies of birth certificate documents. Typically, requests may be made online, via a state’s website. Conducting a simple Internet search for the state name + “request birth certificate” should be sufficient to direct you to an office of vital statistics, department of health, or secretary of state’s office. Many states charge a modest fee for copies, especially certified copies.