The US Social Security Number and Its History

The United States Social Security Number (SSN) is a nine digit number issued by the Social Security Administration to U.S. citizens, permanent residents, and temporary working residents. The original purpose of the SSN was to track individuals and their income for tax purposes.

The inception of Social Security Number in the United States dates back to the years of the great depression and the New Deal. Aimed at alleviating America’s woes following the turmoil of the stock market crash in 1929 President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal focused on the ‘three R’s’ of relief, recovery and reform. It was during this period that he introduced the concept to U.S. citizens in 1936. Since then the Social Security Number has been adopted almost universally in the United States.

The Social Security reform bill was perhaps the most important aspect of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. This bill encompassed several social welfare and social insurance programs including old-age and disability benefits; unemployment benefits; health insurance for aged and disabled; and state children’s health insurance program. Included in this bill was also the introduction of the SSN with the aim of tracking individual accounts within the new social security system and thereby supporting the new tax measures introduced. Within three months of its inception 25 million Americans held a number.

Since this era the use of the Social Security Number has changed greatly. Before the Tax Reform Act of 1986 the honor system was used to regulate tax deductions for child welfare and parents were expected to be honest about the amount of children they had. Prior to 1986 children did not acquire a SSN till about the age of 14. With the passing of the Tax Reform Act this age was lowered to 5. This change revealed the immense level of social security fraud prevalent in the United States with almost 7 million fewer dependents being registered for child welfare benefits following the implementation of the Tax Reform Act. Since then the age has been lowered again and can now be applied for on a certificate of birth application.

Perhaps the most controversial change to the use of the SSN has been the adoption of the number’s use as a means of identification. The SSN was utilized for this end by the Armed Forces from 1969 which replaced the much more complex system of service numbers. First adopted by the Army and Air Force in 1969, the Navy, Marines and Coast Guard services had all followed suit by 1974. In fact, websites such as SSN Background now exist that enable the consumer to research another individual’s background based on their social security number and last name.

Yet up until 1980s the card stated that it was not to be used for identification purposes. However as the SSN has became almost ubiquitously held by American citizens its adoption as a means of identification became an obvious addition to the cards utility. Although everyone still does not own a card it is almost a necessity when applying for a bank account, employment, insurance, and a host of others services; and it is common for companies to refuse service to someone who does not hold a SSN or objects to giving their number out.