This timeline provides milestones in the history of Social Security.
The Progressive Party platform calls for a system of social insurance to protect against the hazards of illness, irregular employment and old age. In the 1920s, Montana’s old-age pension law is the first state law to withstand the test of constitutionality. Old-age assistance laws in Pennsylvania and Nevada are declared unconstitutional.
President Franklin Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, originally designed to provide economic security during the Depression, to aid the jobless, elderly and children. It creates a system to provide financial benefits to retired workers in commerce or industry, except railroad workers, ages 65 or older. A payroll tax, which becomes the Federal Insurance Contribution Act (FICA), starts at 2 percent to pay for the program.
The U.S. Postal Service begins distributing applications for Social Security account numbers. The lowest number, 001-01-0001, goes to Grace Dorothy Owen of Concord, N.H. The first card, however, belonged to John David Sweeney, Jr., whose number is 055-09-0001. Over the next year, more than 35 million cards are issued.
The Social Security program is expanded to provide benefits for the children and spouses of retirees, as well as for the survivors of workers who died in their productive years. This began the transformation of Social Security into a family insurance program. Lump-sum payments are replaced with a monthly payment system.
Benefits coverage is extended to farm workers, domestic workers, self-employed people, the armed forces, and some state and local government employees. In 1956, Congress establishes a cash benefit program for disabled workers age 50 or older, and two years later, dependents of disabled workers became eligible.
President Harry Truman signs Social Security amendments that in part enact the first “cost-of-living-adjustment” to offset the effects of inflation on fixed Social Security incomes. All future increases require special approval from Congress. In 1972, a new law requires automatic adjustments each year to keep up with inflation.
President John Kennedy approves new amendments that in part allow male workers to choose reduced retirement benefits at age 62. Women received the early retirement option in 1956.
After her husband of less than six months died, a woman sought Social Security insurance benefits for herself and her daughter by a previous marriage. The Social Security Administration denied the request on the basis of a duration-of-relationship requirement in the law, which required that a “widow” and “child” have a relationship with the wage earner for more than nine months before his death. They sued, claiming that the rule violated their rights under the Fifth Amendment. In Weinberger v. Salfi, the U.S. Supreme Court finds that the equal protection guarantees of the 14th Amendment are applicable to the federal government here through the Fifth Amendment, but that social welfare legislation like this is constitutional if Congress acted rationally and there was no arbitrary or invidious discrimination. Here, the duration-of-relationship rule made sense to avoid potentially fraudulent claims.
In U.S. Railroad Retirement Board v. Fritz, the U.S. Supreme Court considers changes in the federal retirement benefits program for railroad employees. Before the changes, railroad employees who worked for a certain number of years were qualified to receive retirement benefits, even if their years of service outside the railroad industry also qualified them to receive Social Security. Congress decided that it was too expensive for the government to pay the workers under both programs, so the 1974 Railroad Retirement Act barred dual payments to some future retirees. The Court rules that Congress’ decision to award the benefits to some workers but not to others is a rational way of phasing out the benefits and, consequently, is not a violation of due process.