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What About Social Security?

This article presents brief history of the Social Security program and how it came to be, covering information available that has genealogical value, what you can obtain the cost, and procedure for acquiring.


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Resource: GenWeekly
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In 1935 the Great Depression was in full swing and had a stranglehold on the world economy. In hopes of loosening that hold on the American nation, Congress passed the Social Security Act. Several public assistance programs were established under this act, but the two with the greatest genealogical value were the unemployment and old age insurance plans. The Social Security Administration, which was an agency set up under the direction of the Health and Human Services Department of the United States Government, administered the program.

The basic idea behind the mandatory program was that during the productive working years, employers, employees, and self-employed persons would pay contributions into a special fund. When the family breadwinners earnings stopped due to retirement, disability, or death, benefits would be paid, determined by the wages earned. Everyone in America was required to register except railroad and government employees who were exempt because they already had their own programs.

Since the Social Security Board had no field offices in 1936 when the act was implemented, they contracted with the United States Postal Service, which had 45,000 local post offices across the country, to assign and distribute the first batch of Social Security numbers. The SS-4 forms were issued to employers beginning Nov 16, 1936, and the employer indicated the number of employees he had. The employee filled out an SS-5 form, and the post office assigned a number and supplied a card. The new record created was then sent to Social Security Headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland where the master record was created. Over 30 million Social Security cards were issued through this early procedure. By June 30, 1937, the Social Security Administration had established 151 field offices, and from then to the present, the local office took over assigning the numbers.

The numbering scheme consisted of nine digits arranged in three parts. The first three digits represented an area number assigned by geographical region. Prior to 1972 this number was issued by local Social Security Offices and represented the state where the card was issued. This did not necessarily mean the state in which the person lived since application could be made at any office. Since 1972, the Social Security Administration has changed to a central location in Baltimore, Maryland and the area number is assigned based on the zip code provided by the mailing address on the submitted application, and again this does not have to be the place of residence.

The general rule is that the numbers were assigned beginning in the northeast and moving west; the east coast, therefore, would have the lowest numbers. This design was simply a bookkeeping device for internal use and made storage easier. The second group (middle two digits) represented a group number within each area ranging from 01-99 and was not assigned in consecutive order. The numbers issued first consisted of odd numbers, 01-09, and even numbers, 10-98, within each area assigned to a state. After all the numbers in a group of a particular area have been issued, the even groups, 02-08 is used, followed by odd groups 11-99, and so forth. The last set of numbers (4 digits) is serial numbers, within each group and they run consecutively from 0001-9990.

Fred Happel of Albany, New York was paid $60 for his design of the card. The first typed card belonged to John David Sweeney, Jr., 23 of New Rochelle, New York, and although it was the first account it was not the lowest number. That belonged to Grace Dorothy Owen, a New Hampshire resident who received the number 001-01-0001.

Using form SSA-711, access provided at bottom of this article, you can make application for the employee SS-5 form. The SS-5 can generally be provided upon request, however, disclosure is based on the records the Administration can locate. No information is given unless a person is dead or has given their consent and a fee is charged. If the SS# is provided, a photocopy of the SS-5 will cost $27.00; if you don't have a SS# the cost is $29.00. This is charged for the search even if nothing is found. The Administration also offers a computer extract of the SS-5 which is $16.00 if the SS# is provided, and $18.00 if it is not. For an additional $10.00 a certified copy can be obtained, but this is usually only required for court. Payment can be made by credit card, check, or money order--do not send cash--and must be sent with the written request and SSA-711. Allow 4-6 weeks for a reply.

Is it worth your money and your time? The SS-5 contains the SS#, applicants name, address, age, birth date and place, sex, race, parents names, and employer. An added bonus is the applicant's signature. Be aware, however, that your order will not be processed if the individual died before November of 1936, or if an individual was born before 1865, unless you have the SS#.

(Copy of SSA-711 can be obtained from

Source Information: GenWeekly, New Providence, NJ, USA: Genealogy Today LLC, 2006.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Genealogy Today LLC.

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