Today in 1940, Ida M. Fuller became the first person to receive an old-age monthly benefit check under the new Social Security law. Her first check, dated January 31, was for $22.54.The Social Security Act was signed into law by Franklin Roosevelt on August 14, 1935. In the words of Kevin Maney in The Maverick and His Machine, “no single flourish of a pen had ever created such a gigantic information processing problem.” But IBM was ready. Its President, Thomas Watson, Sr., defied the odds and during the early years of the Depression continued to invest in research and development, building inventory, and hiring people. So, according to Maney, “IBM won the contract to do all of the New Deal’s accounting – the biggest project to date to automate the government. … Watson borrowed a common recipe for stunning success: one part madness, one part luck, and one part hard work to be ready when luck kicked in.”
The nature of processing information before computers is evident in the description of the building in which the Social Security administration was housed at the time: “The most prominent aspect of Social Security’s operations in the Candler Building was the massive amount of paper records processed and stored there. These records were kept in row upon row of filing cabinets – often stacked double-decker style to minimize space requirements. One of the most interesting of these filing systems was the Visible Index, which was literally an index to all of the detailed records kept in the facility. The Visible Index was composed of millions of thin bamboo strips wrapped in paper upon which specialized equipment would type every individual’s name and Social Security number. These strips were inserted onto metal pages which were assembled into large sheets. By 1959, when Social Security began converting the information to microfilm, there were 163 million individual strips in the Visible Index.”
On January 1, 2011, the first members of the baby boom generation reached retirement age. The number of retired workers is projected to grow rapidly and will double in less than 30 years. People are also living longer, and the birth rate is low. As a result, the ratio of workers paying Social Security taxes to people collecting benefits will fall from 3.0 to 1 in 2009 to 2.1 to 1 in 2031.
In 1955, 81-year-old Ida Fuller said: “I think that Social Security is a wonderful thing for the people. With my income from some bank stock and the rental from the apartment, Social Security gives me all I need.”