In the United States, the nine digits that make up your Social Security number (SSN) may be the most important numbers in your life. You are required to apply for your SSN when you start your first job, and it stays with you from then on! We use our SSNs daily, although many times we don't even know it. Important as it is, we may not know much about the origin of our specific number and how SSNs came to be.
What is Social Security?
Generally, the term social security describes a program that uses public funds to provide a degree of economic security for the public. The specific social security discussed here is the United States government program established in 1935 that provides old age, disability, and survivors insurance, as well as supplemental security income, an income for the elderly or disabled.
The original and essential purpose of SSNs is to keep track of the money you put into the Social Security program so that you can get the benefits you're entitled to. The government needs lifelong, unique identity numbers to keep track of people's payments throughout an entire working life, no matter how often we move or change occupations or even change our names.
What do the numbers mean?
SSNs are not assigned consecutively; the first was not the lowest number, and the most recent is not the highest. Up to 2011, they were assigned regionally and in batches. The nine-digit SSN, which has been issued in more than 400 million different sequences, is divided into three parts: area numbers, group numbers and serial numbers.
Area numbers - The first three numbers originally represented the state in which a person first applied for a Social Security card. Numbers started in the northeast and moved westward. This meant that people on the east coast had the lowest numbers and those on the west coast had the highest. Since 1972, the SSA has assigned numbers and issued cards based on the ZIP code in the mailing address provided on the original application form. Since the applicant's mailing address doesn't have to be the same as his residence, his area number doesn't necessarily represent the state in which he resides. For many of us who received our SSNs as infants, the area number indicates the state we were born in. You can find out which area numbers go with each state at SSA.gov: Social Security Number Allocations. Montana’s area numbers began with either 516 or 517.
Group numbers - These two middle digits, which range from 01 through 99, are simply used to break all the SSNs with the same area number into smaller blocks, which makes administration easier. The SSA says that, for administrative reasons, group numbers issued first consist of the odd numbers from 01 through 09, and then even numbers from 10 through 98, within each area number assigned to a state. After all the numbers in group 98 of a specific area have been issued, the even groups 02 through 08 are used, followed by odd groups 11 through 99.
Serial numbers - Within each group designation, serial numbers -- the last four digits in an SSN -- run consecutively from 0001 through 9999.
Although SSNs are issued in some order, there is no simple way to tell a person's age based on his Social Security number.
Social Security Number Randomization
The Social Security Administration (SSA) changed the way SSNs are issued on June 25, 2011. This change is referred to as "randomization." The SSA developed this new method to help protect the integrity of the SSN. SSN Randomization will also extend the longevity of the nine-digit SSN nationwide.
There are approximately 420 million numbers available for assignment. However, the previous SSN assignment process limited the number of SSNs available for issuance to individuals by each state. Changing the assignment methodology extended the longevity of the nine digit SSN in all states.
SSN randomization affected the SSN assignment process in the following ways:
- It eliminated the geographical significance of the first three digits of the SSN, referred to as the area number, by no longer allocating the area numbers for assignment to individuals in specific states.
- It eliminated the significance of the highest group number and, as a result, the High Group List (a list published monthly by the SSA identifying the highest group number of issued SSNs) is frozen in time and can only be used to see the area and group numbers SSA issued prior to the randomization implementation date. Since group numbers were allocated in a regular pattern, this list made it possible to identify fraudulent, unissued SSNs. Randomization has therefore made it more difficult to spot fraudulent numbers.
- Previously unassigned area numbers were introduced for assignment excluding area numbers 000, 666 and 900-999.
What happens to my social security number after my death?
According to the SSA, SSNs are not recycled. Upon an individual's death, the number is removed from the active files and is not reused. Recycling numbers might become an issue someday, but not any time soon -- statisticians say that the nine-digit SSN allows for approximately one billion possible combinations.
The History of Social Security
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 (SSA.gov:History has a picture of the original design). The post offices sent these number assignments 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.