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Social Security Records

The decade of the 1930s found America facing the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Millions of people were unemployed, two million adult men ("hobos") wandered aimlessly around the country, banks and businesses failed and the majority of the elderly in America lived in dependency. These circumstances led to many calls for change. One was the development of the Social Security program.

The Social Security program that would eventually be adopted in late 1935 relied for its core principles on the concept of "social insurance." Social insurance was a respectable and serious intellectual tradition that began in Europe in the 19th century and was an expression of a European social welfare tradition. The Social Security Act was signed into law by President Roosevelt on August 14, 1935. In addition to several provisions for general welfare, the new Act created a social insurance program designed to pay retired workers age 65 or older a continuing income after retirement.

The monumental first task was the need to register employers and workers by January 1, 1937, when workers would begin acquiring credits toward old-age insurance benefits. Since the new Social Security Board did not have the resources available to accomplish this, they contracted with the Post Office Department to distribute the applications. The first application forms were distributed in late November 1936. The numbers were assigned in the local post offices. There is no record of who received the first Social Security number (SSN). The post offices collected the completed forms and turned them over to Social Security field offices located near major post office centers. The applications then were forwarded to Baltimore, Maryland, where SSNs were registered and various employment records established. Over 30 million SSN cards were issued through this early procedure, with the help of the post offices. By June 30, 1937, the SSB had established 151 field offices. From that point on, the Board's local office took over the task of assigning SSNs.