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How Social Security Numbers Became A Form Of National Identification


Your Social Security number - think about it - nine digits that are hard to remember and easy to steal. Our Planet Money podcast wondered why we chose this particularly bad form of national identification. Robert Smith and Kenny Malone have the surprisingly interesting history.

KENNY MALONE, BYLINE: Carolyn Puckett worked for the government for decades and wrote the official history of how the Social Security number wound up controlling our lives.

CAROLYN PUCKETT: Yes, and of course that was never the intention when the Social Security number was invented. Would you like to hear a little bit about the history?


MALONE: I think we would.

PUCKETT: It starts with the signing of the Social Security Act and the Social Security...


FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: This Social Security measure gives at least some protection to 30 millions of our citizens.

MALONE: Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1935.

SMITH: In order to make Social Security work, the government needed a way to identify every single worker and keep track of their earnings every single year for the rest of their lives. What was wrong with your name?

PUCKETT: Well, as you know, Robert Smith, there are probably a whole lot of Robert Smiths.

SMITH: Another suggestion - fingerprints.

PUCKETT: But of course that was connected in everybody's mind with criminals.

MALONE: And so the Social Security Administration settled on the nine-digit number we know today.

SMITH: In 1936, they started handing the numbers out starting with number one.


PUCKETT: 001-01-0001 went to a Grace Owen in New Hampshire.

MALONE: Grace Owen died decades ago, but...


MALONE: Hi. Is this Pam?

PERDUE: It is.

MALONE: We did track down Pam Perdue.

PERDUE: Pam Owen Perdue, and I am the niece of Grace Dorothy Owen.

MALONE: Perdue says her Aunt Grace worked as a secretary, eventually married into the last name Muzzey.

SMITH: And she remembers the lowest number was a big deal in the family.

PERDUE: And I also remember my dad telling me that she went on the show "I've Got A Secret."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "I've Got A Secret" presented by Winston, America's best-tasting filter cigarettes.

MALONE: "I've Got A Secret" was this show where a panel of celebrities tried to guess why you were sort of famous.


GARRY MOORE: Will you tell our panel please what's your name and where you're from?

GRACE MUZZEY: My name is Mrs. Grace Muzzey from Concord, N.H.

MOORE: Now, Mrs. Muzzey has a secret which she will whisper to me, and we'll show it to you at home.

SMITH: And then they hold up a giant copy of her Social Security number for a national television audience to see...


MOORE: 001-01-001.

SMITH: ...Like it was no big deal, which it wasn't yet.

MALONE: But we know that eventually everyone would need to guard their number with their life.

SMITH: Yeah, who - I mean, who's responsible for that?

PUCKETT: Well, the federal government to some extent.

SMITH: So wait. When did the IRS start using it for taxes?

PUCKETT: 1962.

SMITH: The military, 1969.

MALONE: Food stamps, 1977.

SMITH: One after another...

MALONE: Drivers licenses, workers' comp...

SMITH: The Social Security number becomes so broadly used that by default, it sort of becomes our national ID.

MALONE: And then at some point, it became tied to your credit history.

SMITH: Your credit history. Once the credit agencies got a hold of it, it tied your whole life into one easy-to-steal package.

MALONE: Carolyn Puckett says don't blame the digits, though. The Social Security number was great for what it was designed to do.

SMITH: It was never meant to be a national ID. It just sort of became that.

PUCKETT: And we do now issue Social Security numbers to children when they're born. It actually does track you from your first day on the planet to your death.

SMITH: The world may forget our names, Kenny, but the system will always remember our numbers. For NPR News, I'm...


MALONE: Robert...


MALONE: Wait; no, is it - is that - is this your real number?

SMITH: It is my real number.

MALONE: We're going - we can't get - we're going to have to bleep that.

SMITH: We'll bleep it.

MALONE: Kenny Malone, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SNARKY PUPPY'S "WHAT ABOUT ME?") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kenny Malone is a correspondent for NPR's Planet Money podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for WNYC's Only Human podcast. Before that, he was a reporter for Miami's WLRN. And before that, he was a reporter for his friend T.C.'s homemade newspaper, Neighborhood News.