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Jo-Ann Boepple: You are just a nine digit number to the government

Published 11:10am Thursday, August 13, 2009

Nearly 75 years ago on Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935, which gave every American a number when they joined the work force or as now when they are born. Social Security was designed to keep the aged population from the poor farm or poor homes.  It was an effort to provide for those who could not provide for themselves as they aged.

The first number was issued sometime around November 1936.  Thousands of cards and numbers were assigned at the Social Security Board but applications were available at U.S. Post Offices. There were at the time 45,000 post offices. Because of the number of card applications it was difficult to determine who received the first card so a card was selected from the first stack of cards and designated as the first card issued but it is not the first number.

Credited with the first card was John David Sweeny, Jr. age 23, of New Rochelle, N. Y. whose number is 055-09-0001. However the lowest number was given to Grace D. Owen of Concord, New Hampshire, 001-01-0001.

A card number has three parts, the first set of three digits is called the Area Number, the second two digits are called the Group Number and the last set of four digits is the Serial Number.

The Area Number is assigned by geographical region and in most cases identifies the state in which the person applied for the card. Starting in 1972 the numbers were assigned based on zip codes.

The Areas were developed from northeast to west with the people on the East coast having the lowest number and the West coast the highest number.

The group number, the two middle digits range from 01 to 99 with odd numbers used first then even numbers. The Serial numbers run consecutively from 0001 through 9999.
Fred Happel, a skilled artist of Albany, New York designed the card and was paid $60 for his design.

Over 442 million cards have been issued to date. The largest number was in 1936 when first established and the next largest number was in 1987.

The most misused number was 078-05-1120.  In 1938, the E. H. Ferree Company of Lockport, New York printed a fake social security card with that number to show how the card could be placed in a wallet sold at Woolworth Stores. The number was that of a secretary Mrs. Hilda Schrader Whitcher.  Even though it was printed in red and had specimen written across the face, many purchasers of the wallet used the number on their job applications. In all, over 40,000 people reported it as their as their social security number.

The Social Security Board in 1940 published a pamphlet explaining the program and it had a facsimile of the card on the cover. You guessed it. People began using it as their SSN number 219-09-9999.

Check your card and if you applied for your card in Michigan it may start with a 3.
For those in the retired generation, you can thank President Roosevelt and his administration when that government check arrives in the mail or in your bank account. But remember, to the government, you are just a nine digit number.

Jo-Ann Boepple provides Reflections of the Past, a weekly feature from the Edwardsburg Museum Group and Historical Collection. She is a third generation Edwardsburg resident.

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