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69 Soc. Sec. Bull. 55 (2009)
The Story of the Social Security Number

handle is hein.journals/ssbul69 and id is 359 raw text is: THE STORY OF THE SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER

by Carolyn Puckett*

The use of the Social Security number (SSN) has expanded significantly since its inception in 1936. Created
merely to keep track of the earnings history of US. workers for Social Security entitlement and benefit com-
putation purposes, it has come to be used as a nearly universal identifier. Assigned at birth, the SSN enables
government agencies to identify individuals in their records and businesses to track an individual'sfinancial
information. This article explores the history and meaning of the SSN and the Social Security card, as well as
the Social Security Administration's (SSA 's) SSN master file, generally known as the Numident. The article also
traces the historical expansion of SSN use and the steps SSA has taken to enhance SSN integrity.

The Social Security number (SSN) was created in
1936 for the sole purpose of tracking the earnings his-
tories of U.S. workers, for use in determining Social
Security benefit entitlement and computing benefit
levels. Since then, use of the SSN has expanded sub-
stantially. Today the SSN may be the most commonly
used numbering system in the United States. 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. The SSN's very universality has led to its adop-
tion throughout government and the private sector as a
chief means of identifying and gathering information
about an individual.
How did the SSN come to be, and why has it
become an unofficial national identifier? This article
explores the history and meaning of the SSN and the
Social Security card, along with SSA's SSN master
data file, generally known as the Numident. The
article also traces how use of the SSN has expanded
since its introduction and the steps SSA has taken to
enhance the integrity of the SSN process.
Crafting the SSN
At its inception, the SSN's only purpose was to
uniquely identify U.S. workers, enabling employers to
submit accurate reports of covered earnings for use in
administering benefits under the new Social Security
program. That is still the primary purpose for the SSN.

However, creating the SSN scheme and assigning
SSNs to U.S. workers was no easy task. Passage of
the Social Security Act in August 1935 set in motion
a huge effort to build the infrastructure needed
to support a program affecting tens of millions of
individuals. Many said the task was impossible (SSA
1952; SSA 1965, 26). Employers were to begin to
deduct payroll taxes from worker's wages in Janu-
ary 1937, giving the agency little time to establish the
SSN process.1 Besides clarifying program policy, the
agency needed to hire and train employees (7,500 by
March 1938), set up facilities, develop public educa-
tion programs, and create an earnings-tracking system
(Corson 1938, 6).
Establishing the Social Security infrastructure was
impeded for 3  months by the lack of funds due to a
filibuster of the 1936 Deficiency Bill (a government-
wide appropriation bill similar to current Omnibus
Budget Reconciliation bills) by Senator Huey Long
(D-LA). The Roosevelt administration circumvented

* The author is with the Office of Research, Evaluation, and Statistics, Office of Retirement and Disability Policy, Social Security
Social Security Bulletin e Vol. 69 e No. 2 * 2009                              55

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