Social Security numbers, that is…

Reader Lori Jansen was looking for a little more background on the advent of numbers.

Social Security numbers, to be precise, in the hopes that she might find some information about some of her family members.

The question came up after last week’s post updating information about ordering the SS-5 — that wonderful form so many family members used when they applied for a Social Security number (SSN).1

Lori’s hoping that her great-grandfather would have had to apply once he started working in the United States after coming from Sweden. He was born 1865 and came here in 1882. And, she wonders, “At what point were SSN’s required to be applied for right after birth?”

Great questions, and The Legal Genealogist hopes Lori isn’t too disappointed by the answers. Because (a) the whole Social Security system didn’t even begin until her great-grandfather was well past retirement age and (b) giving SSNs as a matter of routine to children who weren’t working didn’t begin until the 1980s.

Social Security Act

We need to remember the history here.

The Social Security system began with the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935. That statute provided, in part, that there would be a tax collected from employees and employers to fund a variety of benefits, principally old age pensions for workers. It created a Social Security Board, later the Social Security Administration, and then gave rulemaking power to the agencies charged with enforcement:

The Secretary of the Treasury, the Secretary of Labor, and the Social Security Board respectively, shall make and publish such rules and regulations, not inconsistent with this Act, as may be necessary to the efficient administration of the functions with which each is charged under this Act.2

Obviously one of the key things that had to be done was keep track of people who were paying in. As a result:

Social security numbers were first issued in late November 1936 to workers in industry and commerce covered by the Social Security Act. …


The original and still the primary reason for issuing numbers was to ensure that earnings in covered employment would be properly posted on an individual’s earnings record. In recent years, however, social security numbers have been used for a variety of nonprogram uses, the most important of which is to identify taxpayers for Federal income-tax purposes.


More than 37 million social security numbers had been issued by the end of 1937. In the next dozen years, the number varied with the number of new entrants into covered employment. It reached a peak of 7.6 million in the war year 1942 but dropped to an average of 2.7 million in the postwar period 1946-50. Coverage of additional workers in 1951 and of still more in 1955 resulted in substantial growth in applications for numbers in 1951 and 1952 and in 1955 and 1956. During 1957-61, the average number issued annually was about 3.3 million.3

Now, it took time for the system to get into place, so the very first SSNs weren’t issued until sometime in November 1936.4 That’s after Lori’s great-grandfather likely would have retired.

Additionally, not everybody needed to get that number at all: “the original Social Security Act had excluded some types of employment from coverage, such as agricultural workers, domestic servants, casual labor, maritime workers, government employees, and the employees of philanthropic, educational, and similar institutions. The self-employed were also excluded from coverage. Seventy years ago, these exempt workers comprised about 40 percent of the working population.”5 Under the law, “Initially, only employees working in covered employment and aged 64 or younger were eligible to obtain an SSN.”6

So Lori may not find her great-grandfather in those records at all. But what about kids — and others?

Over the years, the history of the system tells us, the use of the SSN grew and expanded. In 1943, a Presidential Executive Order required that it be used any time a federal agency needed a personal identifying number, and in 1961 it began to be used as an identification number for federal employees.7

But the big boost for using SSNs came in the Revenue Act of 1962, which made the SSN the identifier for all taxpayers.8 The single year of 1963 saw the biggest boost in issuance of SSNs for the entire period from 1938 to 1971. 9

And of course there was more over time:

• 1964: Pilot program to enroll 9th grade students.
• 1965: SSN needed for Medicare enrollment.
• 1966: SSN needed for admission to VA hospitals and for Indian programs.
• 1967: SSN replaces military service numbers.
• 1972: SSN required for all federal programs.
• 1973: SSN required for SSI.
• 1983: SSN needed for banking and finance.
• 1986: SSN required for any dependent on a tax form aged five or older.
• 1987: Pilot program to issue SSNs at birth.
• 1988: SSN required for any dependent on a tax form aged two or older.10

And now, of course, we’re all getting new numbers for things like Medicare and other programs to replace SSNs as identifying numbers to protect us against identity theft…11

Great questions, Lori… hope you get some benefit from the answers.


  1. See Judy G. Russell, “Ordering the SS-5: 2018 style,” The Legal Genealogist, posted 14 Dec 2018 ( : accessed 17 Dec 2018).
  2. §1102, Social Security Act, 49 Stat. 620 (14 August 1935).
  3. Herbert R. Tacker, “Notes and Brief Reports: Social Security Numbers Issued, 1937-1971,” Social Security Bulletin, July 1972, at 1; PDF version online ( : accessed 17 Dec 2018).
  4. The First Social Security Number and the Lowest Number,” Social Security Administration ( : accessed 17 Dec 2018).
  5. Carolyn Puckett, “The Story of the Social Security Number,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 69 No. 2, 2009; online version, Social Security Administration ( : accessed 17 Dec 2018).
  6. Ibid.
  7. Wayne S. Long, “Social Security Numbers Issued: A 20-Year Review,” Social Security Bulletin, Vol. 56 No. 1, 1993; PDF version online ( : accessed 17 Dec 2018).
  8. Revenue Act of 1962, 76 Stat. 982 (16 Oct 1962).
  9. Tacker, “Notes and Brief Reports: Social Security Numbers Issued, 1937-1971.”
  10. Long, “Social Security Numbers Issued: A 20-Year Review.”
  11. See “Transition to New Medicare Numbers and Cards,” Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services; PDF version online ( : accessed 17 Dec 2018).
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