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It’s a birthday worth noting: Social Security turned 78 this week. It was on Aug. 14, 1935, that President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. According to the Social Security Administration’s website, taxes for the program first were collected in January 1937, the same month some payments were made. It wasn’t until January 1940 that monthly benefits began being paid.
Now, according to information from Sen. Mark Begich’s office, one in nine Alaskans receives Social Security, which injects about $900 million into the state’s economy.
The program’s website at www.ssa.gov/history/hfaq.html has some nifty nuggets about the program that we might think of as only a retirement program. Originally called the Economic Security Act, the 1935 law “contained the first national unemployment compensation program, aid to the states for various health and welfare programs, and the Aid to Dependent Children program.”
Regular cost-of-living adjustments weren’t made to Social Security until 1975. Before that, it took special acts of Congress to increase benefits from time to time.
Social Security numbers are part of the program and first were assigned in November 1936. The first three digits are related to the geographical region in which a person lived when getting a number. (Does “574” sound familiar?) Lower numbers are assigned to the East Coast, moving up to the highest on the West Coast. The other six digits are “more or less randomly assigned,” according to the Social Security Administration.
Since 1937, with the program’s first payments, through 2009, Social Security has paid out $11.3 trillion. It has taken in $13.8 trillion in the same time period. There have been 11 years (so far) in which the program didn’t take in enough in payroll taxes to pay that year’s benefit.
Ketchikan’s Social Security office was closed as a federal cost-saving measure, but answers to many questions are available online at www.ssa.gov. There, one also can find 800 numbers for Social Security and for the closest office, which, in our case, is in Juneau. There, the office is open for calls from 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday.
However, in between in-person and on-the-phone, there is another option that works for many people in Ketchikan. That is a video conference. To talk to a person in real time about Social Security issues, go to the Ketchikan Job Center on the second floor at 2030 Sea Level Drive, any Thursday that isn’t a federal holiday. Video conferences are available from noon until 3 p.m. One can sign up by going into the office a little before noon. People are served in the order in which they sign up; staff at the Job Center says the wait is usually about 10 or 15 minutes.
Social Security has changed since the first lump-sum payment was made — 17 cents! — until now. Whether it’s an adjunct to a private retirement plan, or the only income a retiree has, it still provides a safety net for many Americans and many Alaskans.
We wish the program a robust, economically sound future as it, and we, march forward through time. We’ll all be there someday, we hope, so let’s keep an eye on Social Security and come up with ways for the 20th-century invention to get ahead of 21st century challenges.