First Social Security check: Jan. 31, 1940

A former Vermont legal secretary named Ida May Fuller becomes the first person to receive a monthly Social Security check from the U.S. government. That first check, stamped with the number 00-000-001, was for $22.54--or about $350 today.

A few months earlier, while running errands, Fuller had dropped by the new Social Security office in Rutland, Vermont and filed her retirement claim. "It wasn't that I expected anything, mind you" she would tell an interviewer years later, "but I knew I'd been paying for something called Social Security and I wanted to ask the people in Rutland about it."

In the three years prior to her retirement, the woman known to friends as "Aunt Ida," had paid a total of $24.75 in Social Security taxes. Only five years earlier, during one of the worst years of the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt had signed the Social Security Act, designed to provide continuing income for retired people.

Other people had received Social Security checks before Fuller.  But they were lump sum payments made to those who contributed to the program, but not long enough to be vested for monthly benefits. The average lump sum payment was about $58, although one was as low as 5 cents.

As with the Affordable Care Act, the Social Security Act’s rollout had been anything but smooth. The newly created Social Security Board had faced the daunting task of enrolling 26 million workers in less than a year—without the benefit of computers. To complicate matters, many Americans had the same name. The agency brought in a management expert for advice, but after several months of research, he concluded that the federal government would be incapable of running the program.

But the board persevered and turned to another government agency that ended up saving the day—the U.S. Postal Service. Letter carriers delivered applications for Social Security numbers, helped people fill out the forms, answered questions, returned the forms to typing centers where Social Security cards were produced, and then delivered the new cards to people’s mailboxes.

Also, as with the Affordable Care Act, the Social Security program came under scathing criticism from those who argued that it represented a frightening example of the federal government growing out of control.

One particularly harsh critic was Alf Landon, who was Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 presidential election. “This is the largest tax bill in history,” he said in one speech. “And to call it ‘social security’ is a fraud on the workingman. I am not exaggerating the folly of this legislation. The saving it forces on our workers is a cruel hoax.”

For her part, Ida Fuller would have disagreed.  She would live to be 100 and by the time she died on January 31, 1975--the 35th anniversary of getting that first Social Security check--Fuller would receive a total of almost $23,000 in benefits from her $24.75 in deductions.