“I was the youngest of nineteen children, born in a cramped city apartment, with the assistance of an undocumented midwife.” So said Christine, the sixty-year-old woman I met five years ago in my capacity as a social worker. Though Christine is a citizen who has lived in the United States all her life and raised four children, she lacked a birth certificate, a state ID card, or other kind of official legal identity. Christine’s day of birth is itself an open question, due to conflicting stories from parents and public schools.

What exactly does it mean to be an illiterate adult living without legal identity in the richest country on earth? It means having no bank account, and having to pay thirty dollars in fees to cash your disability check. It means not being able to rent a decent apartment because you don’t have the proper paperwork. It means feeling disconnected to country, to community. It means heavy burdens, both practical and emotional.

Years ago, Christine tried to resolve her perplexing situation on her own. She went to City Hall and completed all the necessary forms in order to obtain a birth certificate — only to be told by the clerk that her limited documentation was insufficient to prove her birth. Her pithy response, “Well, I’m here, ain’t I?,” was not enough to earn her a certificate.

After hearing Christine’s story, I wanted to help. While slugging through the system these past five years, frantically searching for the paperwork required by the Department of Delayed Birth Records, I reached a sobering conclusion: It is impossible to prove one’s identity if you are living in poverty. Without sufficient financial and legal resources, you simply cannot navigate through the layers of bureaucracy and other seemingly impenetrable barriers, that keep you running in place.

Fortunately Christine’s story is moving towards a successful outcome, thanks to a sensitive attorney, a remarkable Medicaid employee, an empathetic elected official and his truly kind staff all willing to look beyond documents to consider life’s realities. But how many people like Christine have been defeated by the barriers? I’ve concluded that living under the grid, in poverty, has not changed in many, many years.

I recently finished reading James McBride’s acclaimed novel, The Good Lord Bird, which tells the story of a boy born in the 1840s. One particular passage from the book leaped out at me:

With the end of November coming, that meant in five week’s time it would be January, and I would be fifteen. I never knowed my true birth date but like most coloreds, I celebrated it on the first of the year. I wanted to move on.

Christine celebrates her birthday on January 1 every year. She, too, wants to move on.