What is a Social Security Number?

By Taylor Nunley. Edited by Arjun Chandrasekar. 


The Great Depression devastated America in the early 1930s. The Stock Market Crash of 1929 caused panic in a country that was only starting to dip its toes into credit. Thousands found themselves unemployed, homeless, and quickly losing hope in an economy that didn’t seem to be improving. America needed to do something, and fast. In an effort to recover the economy, help those most affected by the Depression, and reform the system from the inside, President Franklin D. Roosevelt introduced the New Deal. Several programs came out of this, but one of the few still existing ones is the Social Security Act. In 1935, Roosevelt signed this Act, and thus, Social Security numbers were born. 


Social Security Numbers (SSN) weren’t always distributed to everyone. Initially, they were only meant for certain workers eligible for the new retirement system Roosevelt instated. The idea behind the numbers was so that any American could easily be identified, even if two happened to have the same name and birthday. Their income history then would be recorded in their profile to determine their social security benefits. Other groups, such as the disabled and blind, could also receive payment. SSNs quickly rose in popularity, and by 1989, the Enumeration at Birth program allowed for parents to apply for their child’s number at birth, changing the notion that SSNs were only for specific groups.

In the Modern World

Though different number combinations were considered when the Social Security Administration first introduced SSNs, the 9-digit number layout has been official since 1936. The first three digits, called the area number, designates the holder’s geographic region. If obtained later on in life, the ZIP code of the mailing address dictates the number, while if obtained at birth, state location decides it. The following two digits, the grouping number, range from 01-99 but are not assigned consecutively. The final four numbers are called the serial number and are the most important. These four numbers, if given to the wrong person, could easily lead to identity theft. 

SSNs are used for a variety of reasons today. Their main purpose, though, is still the same as when it was introduced: to track a person’s contributed income to the Social Security retirement plan. Although most Americans and foreign workers have an SSN, some can be exempt. But, not having a number can make many simple tasks into almost impossible ones. Since SSNs are also used for jobs, bank accounts, tax returns, loans, and more, navigating the country without one can be difficult.  


If you’re an American reading this article, you likely already have a Social Security number and should be aware of all its uses. You’ll be needing it often in your adult life. Though many official forms ask for this 9-digit number, it’s not necessary to fill it out for all of them. To be safe, you should only give your card number out to trusted officials and keep your card in a secure place.    

Related Posts

Leave a Reply