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 (on form OA-702) to the master files at Social Security headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland.