In this Aug. 12, 2011 photo, Stephanie, left, and Raechel Schultz sit outside their home in London, Ky. The women have been unable to acquire social security numbers from the government and have filed a lawsuit to make it happen. (AP Photo/Ed Reinke)
LONDON, Ky. (AP) — For more than two decades, a pair of sisters in rural Kentucky have lived without Social Security numbers, doing odd jobs like bartending and making jewelry to earn cash under the table. One of them even posed as their mother to gain employment.
Now Raechel and Stephanie Schultz want steady, legitimate work, yet the federal government has refused to issue numbers to the women, saying they need more proof the pair were born in the U.S. The predicament prompted the women, who have lived for years on society’s fringes, to sue.
“I‘m proud to be American but they don’t want me,” 23-year-old Stephanie Schultz told The Associated Press in an interview at their lawyer’s office in southeastern Kentucky.
The earliest years for the Schultz sisters were nomadic. The family traveled through 42 states, never staying too long in one place. Their father found occasional work in construction or at restaurants and the children picked up cans to make a few bucks. They stayed in motels or camped and the sisters’ grandparents sent money to help.
“They didn’t have no life plan,” 29-year-old Raechel Schultz said of her parents, now in their 50s. “It was just all like free hippie style, do what you can to get by. Gypsies.”
Raechel was born at a home in Madison County, Ky., near where the family lives now; Stephanie was delivered in the back of a Dodge van in southern Alabama. The births were recorded in a family Bible but were otherwise undocumented.
Their mercurial parents settled into a hardscrabble existence about 14 years ago along the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, where the family car broke down. The girls were home schooled by their college-educated parents.
The sisters still live with their parents in a weather-worn mobile home in the tiny enclave of Lily. The trailer is perched close to a strip of blacktop winding through the hilly backcountry.
It wasn’t until five years ago that they tried to register with the Social Security system. They waited until Stephanie turned 18 because their parents feared truancy charges, Raechel said.
“The first couple years of our life, Dad didn’t get our Social Security numbers, and he said once you don’t do that right off the bat, they won’t let you do it,” Raechel said. “So they just went on with it.”
Everyone else in the family has a Social Security number, including an older sister now living in New Orleans who got her Social Security card as a teenager on her second try. She had a birth certificate and a baptismal record.
When the sisters first went to get their Social Security number, “we thought it would be easy,” Stephanie said.
This isn’t the first time the sisters have gone to court over personal documents. In 2009, the women sued to get birth certificates, took a DNA test to prove they were born to their parents and a judge’s order won them the records.
“The Court has no reason to not believe the testimony and finds no reason to suggest the plaintiffs are seeking this relief for an illegal or immoral purpose,” Circuit Judge John Knox Mills wrote in his 2010 order.
Despite their lack of Social Security numbers, the sisters have found ways to supplement their family’s meager income. Stephanie makes jewelry and paints old furniture to sell at a flea market. Raechel held down work at a couple of area restaurants by posing as her mother. She was at one eatery for seven years, rising to associate manager, but eventually quit out of fear her supervisors would discover her secret.
According to their lawsuit, the Social Security Administration indicated it denied the women’s request for numbers because they “have not given us documents we need to show U.S. citizenship.” The agency has declined to comment on the suit.
The sisters’ attorney, Douglas Benge, said he was told by a Social Security official that the agency doesn’t accept birth certificates issued so many years after birth.
“Our complaint with the government is, what else do these girls have to show?” he said.
On its website, the Social Security Administration lists documents that may be used to prove identity, age and citizenship. The accepted records include a birth certificate, driver’s license, state-issued identification card or U.S. passport, and it’s not entirely clear why they have been denied.
Robert Bruce, who retired as a district manager after 31 years with the Social Security Administration, said recently that the age of the women combined with the lack of official documentation raises a suspicion of fraud.
The sisters see their dilemma as a government overreaction since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Their maternal grandfather said they just want a chance to work.
“My view is, we’re so caught up in administrative procedure, nobody has any common sense,” said Norman Turchan, who lives in Indianapolis. “There’s a common sense way out of this situation.”
When word of their plight appeared on the Internet and in newspapers, their attorney received emails from some questioning the sisters’ motivation, saying the Schultzes just wanted government assistance. But both women said they want to work, and that their family has never taken welfare.
“I don’t want to bum off the state,” said Raechel, who would like to sell real estate.
Stephanie dreams of running a no-kill animal shelter and dabbling in interior design.
“If you have a Social Security number, you can do anything you want,” Raechel said.
Barrouquere reported from Louisville, Ky.