The Social Security Administration (SSA) has a long and varied history. Over the years, the agency has taken many forms and been organized in a myriad of different ways, but it has always remained true to its mission to help elderly people, disabled persons and the surviving families of deceased breadwinners avoid poverty.
Everything You Wanted to Know About the Social Security Administration
The Social Security Administration has been around since 1935. It was created by President Roosevelt as an independent agency when he signed the Social Security Act. At that point, it was called the Social Security Board (SSB) and had no staff or budget. The Federal Emergency Relief Administration donated a temporary budget, while different government agencies loaned personnel.
In 1939, the SSB was absorbed by the newly created Federal Security Agency (FSA) along with the Civilian Conservation Corporation, the Office of Education, the Public Health Service and the U.S. Employment Service. The FSA was a sub-cabinet agency. Under this organization, the SSB was permitted to operate independently. The FSA also administered the programs of the U.S. Public Health Service, Office of Education, National Youth Administration and Civilian Conservation Corps.
The U.S. Employment Service and the Bureau of Unemployment Compensation were consolidated into the Bureau of Employment Security under the Social Security Board, explains the Social Security Administration. “The only administrative change was the transfer of the General Counsel and personnel functions to a central function under the FSA Administrator.”
The SSB changed its name to the Social Security Administration in 1946, but remained part of the FSA until 1953 when President Eisenhower created a cabinet agency called the Department of Health, Education and Welfare, or HEW. The SSA was absorbed by the HEW. The Department of Health, Education and Welfare remained intact until 1980 when it was replaced by the Department of Health & Human Services, or HHS. In 1995, the SSA came full circle and returned to independent agency status under President Clinton.
Understanding Social Security Numbers
The Social Security number, or SSN, has been around since 1936. It was designed to help the government track the earning histories of its citizens so that it could issue an appropriate amount of benefits when they were needed. However, the task proved to be a difficult one.
The infrastructure to support Social Security benefits needed to be built in such a way that agencies could issue new identification numbers as well as track existing ones throughout the system and across different locations. At the same time, employers were charged with automatically deducting taxes from payroll checks starting in 1937, so the clock was ticking — and there were a few missteps.
“Today we take the nine-digit composition of the SSN as a given, but in 1935 and 1936, many other schemes were considered. In early November 1935, the Social Security Board adopted an identifier composed of three alphabetic characters representing geographic areas and five numeric characters. However, the board made this decision without consulting other federal agencies, explains the Social Security Administration.
The U.S. Employment Service (USES), the Census Bureau, the Central Statistical Board and the Bureau of Labor Statistics all used numeric symbols without alphabetic characters since most standard statistical machines used this scheme. With alphabetic symbols, these agencies, as well as many private companies, would have had to buy new machines.” As such, the use of letters in the Social Security number was abandoned.
In 1936, the SSB developed a nine-digit system that relied on
- an area number that comes from the geographic region in which the person was issued his or her Social Security number,
- a group number that represents the post offices that originally served as Social Security offices and issued the benefits,
- and a serial number that serves as a unique identifier.
The first three digits are the area number, the next two are the group number, and the last four are the serial number.
Generally, the assignment of a geographic region began in the northeast of the country and moved westward, so people born or issued their Social Security numbers in the eastern part of the United States tend to have lower numbers in the first part of their SSNs than people in the western part of the country.
Social Security Numbers Today
While the primary purpose of Social Security numbers has not changed in all those years, its role has taken on a different importance. “Today the SSN may be the most commonly used numbering system in the United States,” says the Social Security Administration. “As of December 2008, the Social Security Administration (SSA) had issued over 450 million original SSNs, and nearly every legal resident of the United States had one.”
It also happens that a Social Security number is one of the only unique identifiers that everyone has. Birth certificates are issued state-by-state instead of at a national level, not everyone has a passport, and while many people have drivers licenses or state-issued identification cards, many do not, especially children.
As such, the Social Security number has become tantamount to a national ID number and serves that same purpose, even for entities outside the government. “Landlords, cable companies, cell phone providers or even credit reporting agencies … all habitually request SSNs simply because a number is more precise than a name,” explains The Verge. “Unfortunately, SSNs are also appealing to identity thieves, who can use the numbers to open new bank accounts and credit cards.” However, SSNs were never meant to be used for identification, so no one could have anticipated it being an issue.
Social Security Cards
Because Social Security numbers are in fact the main piece of identification any American needs, one of the big concerns of the agency has to do with Social Security Cards, both by issuing new cards, as well as by issuing replacements for lost and stolen Social Security cards.
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