According to SSA historians, the social security program began with the Social Security Act of 1935, originally titled the Economic Security Act. The term “Social Security” was coined in the United States by activist Abraham Epstein, who led a group called the American Association for Social Security. Social Security taxes and benefit payments began in January 1937. Initially the government paid retirement benefits only to a family’s primary worker, but in 1939 it added survivor’s benefits and benefits for the retiree’s spouse and children. Disability benefits began in 1956, and in 1965 Congress signed Medicare into law. The Civil Service Commission adopted the SSN as an official federal employee identifier in 1961, and the Internal Revenue Service adopted it as the official taxpayer ID number in 1962. While the Social Security Act did not specify the use of numbered cards, it did call for the formation of a record-keeping plan. The first group of SSNs were assigned and distributed through 45,000 local post offices across the United States, since the SSA had not yet developed its current network of 1,300 field offices. The cards themselves were made in more than 1,000 post offices designated as “typing centers.” Between November 1936 and June 1937, more than 30 million SSN applications were processed. First, the SSA distributed SS-4 applications to employers, asking them to report the number of employees in their businesses. Then, the SSA sent the appropriate number of SS-5 forms to employees for them to complete. When the employees returned these forms to the post offices and typing centers, the SSA assigned SSNs and typed them up on the first Social Security cards. Fred Happel, the New York artist who had created the Flying Tigers logo used during World War II, provided the design for the cards (as shown here).
The post offices sent these number assignments (on form OA-702) to the master files at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.
The First Social Security Numbers
So who got that first number? According to government historians, no one knows for sure. The first card was issued sometime in mid-November 1936 at one of the 1,074 typing centers. Officially, no cards should have been issued before November 16, SSA historians say, provided that the 45,000 local post offices followed procedure, which is unlikely. Even if the first issuance date could be determined, it’s likely that hundreds of thousands of citizens across the country received their cards on that day.
The First “Official” Record
Once received in Baltimore, SSN records were grouped in sections of 1,000, and master records (on the earnings and Social Security taxes of each individual) were formulated. When the first block of records was complete, the head of the SSA’s Division of Accounting Operations pulled off the top record — SSN 055-09-0001 — and designated it as the first official card. That first Social Security record was assigned to a 23-year-old New York man, John David Sweeney, Jr.. Ironically, Sweeney died in 1974 at the age of 61 without ever receiving any Social Security benefits (full retirement age was initially set at 65; today, benefits are reduced by five-ninths of 1 percent for each month you are retired before 65, up to a maximum of 20 percent for people who retire the month they reach 62). Sweeney’s widow, however, did receive benefits until she died eight years later.
The Low-Number Holder
Concord, New Hampshire, resident Grace D. Owen was issued the first card typed in Concord, which because of the numbering scheme happened to be the card with the lowest possible number — 001-01-0001. Owen received the number after it had been offered (as an honor) and declined by both John G. Winant, Social Security board chairman, and John Campbell, Federal Bureau of Old Age Benefits’ regional representative for the Boston region.
Who was the first to receive Social Security benefits?
During the Social Security program’s start-up period between January 1937 and December 1939, the SSA only made one-time, lump-sum payments. According to SSA historians, Ernest Ackerman was the first recipient of Social Security benefits — 17 cents, paid to him in January 1937. The first person to receive monthly benefits was Ida May Fuller from Vermont, who retired in November 1939 and started collecting benefits in January 1940 at age 65. In the three years that Fuller worked under the program, she contributed a total of $24.75. Her first benefit check was for $22.54 and she went on collecting benefits for 35 years, until 1975, when she died at age 100. In this time she collected a total of $22,888.92.