From Isolation to Opportunity: Proving Who You Are


Garet Fryar, Policy Research Assistant

Chances are, you have a driver’s license or state ID in your wallet. Doesn’t everyone? Actually, there are over 21 million adult citizens (11 percent) estimated in the United States who do not have some type of current government-issued photo identification. Driver’s licenses and state identification cards (IDs) are essential to prove who you are to new employers, school admissions, banks, health insurers and hospitals, landlords and homeless shelters, certain establishments, travel offices, police officers, and some state voting locations.

Certain populations are less likely to possess a current, government-issued photo ID than others:

  • Eighteen percent of citizens between the ages of 18 and 24 do not have a photo ID with their current address and name.
  • Twenty-five percent of African-Americans over the age of 18 do not possess a current government-issued photo ID, in contrast to eight percent of white Americans.
  • Fifteen percent of adults in America who earn less than $35,000 each year do not have a valid government-issued photo ID, meaning they are more than twice as likely to lack proper ID than those citizens who earn more than $35,00 per year.

Obtaining a photo identification card like a driver’s license should be easy. However, each state has its own rules and regulations that can make it very difficult for the nation’s most vulnerable youth to obtain the proper ID. States require many documents when applying for a new driver’s license or state identification card, such as:

  • Proof of name and date of birth, usually through a U.S. birth certificate or passport
  • Additional photo identification, if the proof of name and date of birth lacks a photo
  • Proof of a Social Security number, such as the original Social Security card or a W2 tax form
  • Verification of lawful presence in the United States for non-citizens, valid permanent resident cards or other government issued documents are accepted
  • Proof of school enrollment, graduation, or exemption, for youth up to age 19 in some states
  • Verification of state residency, such as a utility bill , a voter registration card, or a pay stub
  • Parental consent, if under the age of 18
  • Proof of name change if applicable, such as divorce degrees, marriage certificates, and court orders
  • Fee money, varies between states and the District of Columbia ranging from $5 to $112
    • Many states will charge an additional fee if hopeful drivers fail to pass the written or road test on their first attempt. Fees can also vary depending on the approved length of time that the identification is valid and how old the person is when applying for their ID.

The process to obtain the majority of these documents can be confusing, time-consuming, frustrating, and sometimes costly. However, if you are a youth who has been homeless, involved with the child welfare system, experienced disgruntled family members who retain information or documents, and/or are not a native citizen, this process quickly becomes increasing difficult. Combine these factors with the need for youth to have background knowledge and experience to pass the driver’s tests, and provide proof of school enrollment or parental consent when the youth may not have access to their records or guardians and it becomes clear why so many disadvantaged youth lack proper identification.

Fortunately, there are programs and policies that can help youth with additional barriers successfully obtain a driver’s license or state identification card. For example, many homeless youth lack the adult support to help them obtain their paperwork and teach them how to drive. Organizations like Outreach in Indianapolis, Indiana ask volunteers to help homeless youth earn their driving hours, fill out forms, and obtain the appropriate paperwork.

Youth in foster care are able to more easily obtain an ID if their guardian or biological parent signs the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) form before they exit care. Some states have created specific laws or programs to help youth in foster care more easily afford the costs associated with acquiring a driver’s license. In Oregon, legislators passed a law that provides reimbursement for the costs of driver’s education courses to youth in foster care under age 18, alleviating some of the burden. Other states have gone further than this; Florida created the Keys to Independence program which reimburses foster care youth up to age 21 for most of the costs associated with a driver’s license, including car insurance.

For other populations, such as immigrant youth, obtaining additional paperwork that proves their identity can be confusing. Youth who arrived in the United States before the age of 16 and meet other requirements are able to apply for a driver’s license under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in most states; however, the type of necessary paperwork varies from state to state. The National Immigration Law Center has answered frequently asked questions and outlined how immigrant youth can apply for DACA.

Organizations, policies, and programs like these are all over the country; however, youth are still falling through the gaps and do not have the appropriate identification to apply for college and work opportunities, obtain health insurance, or even stay in shelters. Many of us take our identification for granted. Being able to prove who we are is something that’s just a part of daily life; however, for too many young people, proof of identification is just another barrier to leading a successful life. More needs to be done to ensure that some of our most vulnerable youth do not lose themselves because they cannot prove who they are.

 Garet Fryar is a Policy Research Assistant at the American Youth Policy Forum


The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.