Franklin D. Roosevelt would be proud and gratified. Today, more than eight decades since the Social Security program began, the nine digits that guarantee retirement benefits have become essentially every American's ID number. Everywhere we turn — from getting paid for an after-school job to buying a house — Americans are asked to provide their Social Security number. Without those nine digits, we don't really exist as U.S. citizens.
The Social Security number's influence evolved over time. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935, in the middle of the Great Depression, with destitution stalking every community and family support structures crumbling. During his first years in office, even as he directed his energies toward programs that would put unemployed Americans immediately to work, a movement took hold to provide for workers when they could no longer earn a living. Most other industrialized nations offered financial support to individuals in need, but the concept was foreign to this country. Though FDR found trained experts from both parties to work on the problem, they barely knew where to start.
But they hit on a simple and elegant solution: an insurance plan, rather than any kind of handout. Workers would contribute with every paycheck and receive a monthly stipend in the mail upon reaching retirement age. In the debate that followed the proposal, some people asserted it changed the very fabric of America. A representative of the National Association of Manufacturers testified before Congress that Social Security would represent "ultimate socialist control of life and industry."
Arguments over funding continued even after Social Security became law, yet so did FDR's resolve. A year after the complex program passed, it was ready to register the American public. Or at least most of the American public: Self-employed professionals, such as doctors and lawyers, were not invited to participate, on the theory that they could provide for their own retirement. And domestic workers and field hands were excluded, a stipulation debated today — was it because of tacit racism or the pragmatic considerations of withholding taxes?
Worker participation began with filling out a short application, initially at the post office, to receive a paper card. Critics likened the process to the social engineering used in fascist nations, notably Nazi Germany, predicting that American workers would be forced to wear metal tags on chains around their necks and charging that "surveillance is a part of the plans of the Roosevelt administration." In fact, workers weren't chained to anything aside from an extra tax on earnings, but they did receive a number. At first, some confused American workers applied over and over again, receiving a handful of numbers, and they were soon asked to return the extras. From the point of view of the administrators, the beauty of Social Security was simple, as well as entirely new: Each insured American had one number, and each number had one American.
So many people applied during the program's first weeks in November 1936 that clerks and typists were added by the thousands in big cities. If the managers couldn't keep up, neither could the program's publicists. Every new development or statistical benchmark was heralded as a modern miracle. The first card was issued to John D. Sweeney Jr., the son of a wealthy New York manufacturer, who was at the Princeton Club in Manhattan on December 1 when the news broke. Seeing the swarm of reporters clamoring to meet him, "he considered leaving by the club's rear entrance," according to one journalist. Sweeney finally stayed and answered questions: an instant Social Security celebrity.
Though Sweeney received the first card, he didn't receive number 001-01-0001: That honor went to Grace Owen in New Hampshire. In fact, it would have been impossible for someone outside New Hampshire to hold that memorable number. The first three digits on a Social Security card identified the state or region of the applicant. The second two grouped the cardholder within the state or region, and the last four tallied the individuals in the group. For most people during the first months, the program was an exciting prospect, but the numbers themselves were fairly forgettable. In 1936, the most valuable possession for any American was a good name. A reputation, a life story or a signature were all based in that name, not some anonymous numerals.
Remarkably, only eight days after recognizing young Sweeney, Social Security administrators were ready to start welcoming their second million cardholders. On December 9, 1936, word went out to Sobol Brothers Service Stations Inc., in New York, to bring forth James Murray, who was about to be the 1,000,001st card recipient. The main office at Sobol Brothers, a string of gas stations, found James Murray and sent him to the Manhattan post office, packed with officials, reporters and photographers. With great fanfare, the lucky recipient was introduced to the crowd and asked the straightforward questions on his application. The crowd was stunned when he gave a series of wrong answers.
The poor man was not a liar. He was just the wrong James Murray. Social Security managers held the crowd while someone urgently called the Sobol Brothers main office. No one there could offer an explanation. Meanwhile, the reporters milled around as the faux Murray nervously rocked from side to side, teeming with high-profile embarrassment. Just then, someone at Sobol Brothers recalled a painter on the staff who was also named James Murray. The new man of the hour was rushed to the post office, introduced and, being famous, asked for his opinions on world events.
Though within four months Social Security files would hold the names of nearly 26 million Americans, that December day in the Manhattan post office reflected the future more pointedly than any statistic or any other headline. Had the call gone out for a certain number, rather than for a name, there would have been no mix-up before the cameras.
As a program, Social Security has grown since 1935, yet most Americans younger than 66 think about it only occasionally. It's the Social Security number that has become a part of nearly every day for nearly everyone. After World War II, when new regulations expanded Social Security and the job titles it encompassed, the reach of the program's ID numbers expanded. The armed forces dispensed with their serial numbers in 1967 and instead tracked soldiers by their Social Security numbers. Businesses followed suit, using the numbers, effectively, in place of names. Then, in the late 1980s, Social Security began to make it easy for parents to get numbers for newborn babies.
Babies don't work or buy houses, but they are Americans, and so they have a number.
Douglas Brinkley is a Rice University history professor. His forthcoming book is Rightful Heritage: Franklin D. Roosevelt and the Land of America.