The Social Security Number, A Biography: Part 1

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My grandfather on my mother’s side is named Joseph. His son is also named Joseph. Not Joseph Junior. Not Joseph II. Just Joseph. They’re both just Joseph [Last Name], which sometimes makes traveling with them a headache. Not long after 9/11, the lot of us went on vacation together and got held up in security whenever the TSA took issue with the fact that two different guys with the same name were booked for the same flight.

This is the kind of issue that the Social Security Administration was hoping to avoid when it began to track the earning histories of U.S. workers and determine their Social Security entitlement and benefit levels in the early 1930s. Names on their own, or partnered with addresses, wouldn’t work as identifiers for people when guys like my grandfather passed on their names to their sons, but neglected to tack on a “Junior.” While that sort of situation might not be common, how many unrelated Joe Smiths have you met in your life? In a 5-second web search, I found 4,513 in the U.S., and that probably doesn’t cover all of them. What’s more, there’s the problem of people changing their names and moving from address to address.

Some government agencies like the War Department and the Veterans Administration used fingerprints to ID people, but fingerprinting is associated with being arrested and booked in the public mind, and the SSA decided that people weren’t going to have it. Eventually, they hit upon the idea of using numbers as unique identifiers, and the Social Security Number was born.

Figuring out the Format

Initially, the number was going to consist of three alphabetic characters and five numeric characters. Only two companies at the time manufactured tabulating machines that used alphabetic characters, though, and the federal government had previously gone after them under antitrust legislation for dividing the market between them. The SSA didn’t want to turn around and give them government business, so a new, letter-free numbering scheme had to be worked out.

They considered a few different options and settled on a 9-digit number consisting of a 3-digit geographic code, a 2-digit age indicator and a 4-digit serial number. The 2-digit code was to represent the year that number’s owner reached the retirement age, and after that, their number could be recycled. That plan was scrapped when someone suggested that tying the number to age would encourage people to falsify their age when applying for a number.

In the summer of 1936, the SSA finalized the 9-digit number scheme, with the fourth and fifth digits acting as a “group number” that would be assigned in a specific sequence and allowed for the pre-numbering of registration forms.

SSN Structure

From then on, the SSN consisted of three parts: area number, group number and serial number.

The first three digits are the area number, which is assigned by geographic region. Area numbers were assigned to each state based on the anticipated need for SSNs to be assigned in them. The numbers were generally doled out in ascending order beginning with the Northeast states (but not with the most northeast of them, as we’ll learn soon) and then moving south and west—so, theoretically, a person’s number could give the SSA some information about where that person lived, enabling them to track geographic trends in benefit distribution. This never really worked out for them.

At first, the area numbers were issued to local post offices—the SSA didn’t have their own field offices yet—to assign to people, but some large companies with multiple offices, branches or stores across the country had all of their employees send their SSN applications to their national headquarters for central processing and mailing. If you worked at a bank branch in California, but the home office was in New York, your number wound up not reflecting your place of residence and didn’t tell the SSA anything useful. Later, the SSA started assigning SSNs centrally from their Baltimore office based on the ZIP code of the mailing address people put on their applications. This didn’t work out either, since someone’s mailing address doesn’t necessarily reflect where they live or work.

Some exceptions to the geographic distribution were made. Numbers 700-728, for example, weren’t assigned by region, but were reserved for railroad workers until 1963. Numbers 587-595 went to Mississippi and Florida, out of order, after the two states used up their initial runs of numbers. SSNs with the area number 000 or 666 have never, and likely won’t ever, be assigned.

Last year, the SSA decided to do away with the geographical significance of the first block of digits, and is no longer assigning them to specific states.

The second group of digits is the group number. Contrary to conspiracy theory and urban legend, these don’t reflect racial or ethnic groupings. The “group” just refers to the numerical subgroups into which the area numbers are broken down. The reason for doing this was so that early SSA administrators could break down their files into smaller, more manageable, subgroups, which allowed them to find information more easily. These groups range from 01 to 99 and are issued, within each area number, in this order: odd group numbers from 01 to 09; even numbers 10 to 98; even numbers 02 to 08; and odd numbers 11 to 99.

The last four digits are the serial number, a straight numerical series of numbers from 0001–9999 within each group.

With the number scheme figured out, the SSA was ready to start assigning numbers to the public. We’ll find out who the first social security number went to tomorrow.

College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions


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