The first Social Security check was issued 75 years ago on January, 31, 1940, to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont. She had paid $24.75 in taxes between 1937-1939 on an income of $2,484, and her first Social Security check was for $22.54, which would be equivalent to some $365 in purchasing power today.
The Social Security Act was signed into law in 1935 in response to the Great Depression, when more than half of all American seniors were living in poverty. There was a political battle for the Act (“Isn’t this socialism?” asked a U.S. Senator, “Isn’t this a teensy-weensy bit of socialism?”), with major compromises and Supreme Court decisions made before it was enacted.
Twenty-six million Americans were given some measure of protection, but the law originally excluded many women because such employment categories as nursing, teaching, and librarianship were not included; men were supposed to be the breadwinners. Additionally, up to 80% of working African-Americans in the South were left out of the system; agricultural and domestic jobs were excluded at the behest of Southern Democrats who pledged to preserve the Jim Crow system of racial separation.
One year into the new Social Security system, John G. Winant, the first head of the Social Security Board, signaled the issue at hand, in a way that sounds very familiar today: “The modern problem of old-age security is growing, as the percentage of our population in the old-age group is rapidly increasing. The span of the average human life is lengthening.” Winant, a former Republican Governor of New Hampshire, believed the law was “the most humane document written into law in this century.”
The future of Social Security remains an open question. Debates about how to save/reform/transform/destroy the system fill the political arena. Ida May Fuller lived until 1975, dying at 100 after having collecting a total of $22,888.92 in benefits.