Are Social Security numbers "recycled"? If not, then why is my number lower than my (older) boyfriend's? If you add the current population (now about 250,000,000) to the number of Americans who have died since 1935 (when Social Security began), wouldn't the resulting number exceed nine digits in an S.S. number, proving my little theory about recycling?
OK, Cecil, tell me I'm full of blarney, but what do the numbers represent?
Lisa W., New York
You’re full of blarney. We aims to please around here.
Cecil wishes he could tell you Social Security numbers were as fraught with meaning as the driver’s license numbers issued by some states, which encode everything but your IQ. But no such luck.
Prior to 1973, the first three digits indicated the state of the issuing Social Security office. Since 1973, the first three digits “are determined by the ZIP Code of the mailing address shown on the application for a Social Security number,” it says here. But it’s still basically done by states.
The remaining digits are simply a serial number. To date recycling hasn’t been necessary, but more on this in a moment.
So you can make sure they didn’t screw up and give you a wrong number with God knows what ghastly consequences for your retirement, here’s how the numbers are assigned:
Some states were assigned additional numbers due to population growth. Numbers that show up for more than one state were reassigned or cover several small localities.
Until 1963, workers covered under the Railroad Retirement Act, which predated Social Security, were given numbers between 700 and 728. The Philippines prior to independence had 586. You’re fascinated, I’m sure.
The question one might ask is: why should a Social Security number mean anything — why not just make it a straight serial number? No reason, from what I can gather. It’s mainly a holdover from the old days.
Before 1973, social security numbers were issued by local field offices. To prevent duplication, states were allocated blocks of numbers.
In 1973, number issuance was centralized at Social Security Administration HQ in Baltimore. The feds could easily have switched to the straight serial method at this point but didn’t, apparently out of a primordial bureaucratic instinct that once a system, always a system.
No big deal, I guess, except that the numbers will run out faster than they might have otherwise — that is, as soon as the last block of a million numbers is allocated and the first state begins to run dry.
Happily for us, this is yet another looming crisis we can fob off on our grandchildren.
About 360 million Social Security numbers have been issued to date, 211 million of which are “active,” i.e., the holders are still breathing. Since there are about a billion possible numbers (actually 999 million, since nobody seems to want the 000 series), we’ll be halfway into the next century before it’s time to panic.
At the moment Social Security masterminds aren’t sweating it. Their most pressing concern isn’t running out of numbers, it’s running out of money.
Our days are numbered
Cecil, you’re a hopeless romantic. Sure, it makes sense that if only 360 million people have ever had nine-digit Social Security numbers, it’ll take 639 million more before we run out. But when did logic ever have anything to do with the federal government?
One major use of Social Security numbers is for taxpayer and employer identification — and what with corporations, trusts, partnerships, not-for-profits, and various other obscure business enterprises, there are a lot more taxpayers and employers than Social Security registrants.
So what’s the REAL straight dope? Is D(uplication)-Day right around the corner?
— Harry Doakes, Portland, Oregon
Harry, I know you are a good soul. So even though I am now obliged to whup you upside the head, know that I do it with love.
Only people can get Social Security numbers, not corporations. When businesses file taxes they have to use what is variously known as a taxpayer or employer ID number. Like the SS number, it has nine digits, but it’s grouped differently — 00-0000000 versus 000-00-0000.
You may say a hyphen is a pretty frail bulwark against national chaos should a significant fraction of taxpayer ID numbers duplicate Social Security numbers (as indeed has probably occurred).
But the folks at the Social Security Administration basically say, hey, not our problem — we don’t issue taxpayer ID numbers, the IRS does.
A pretty cavalier attitude, but look at the bright side. They might accidentally send you the tax refund check for IBM.
One more thing. It occurs to me I may have been too hasty in describing the last six digits of the Social Security number as “simply a serial number.” Whatever may be said about Uncle Sam being logical, nothing involving the federal government is simple.
The fourth and fifth digits of the SS number are what’s known as the “group number.” In a system that’s perverse even by government standards, SS numbers for a given state are issued in this order: first all those having odd group code numbers from 01 to 09, then even numbers from 10 to 98, then even from 02 to 08, and finally odd numbers from 11 to 99.
According to one of my less reputable sources, all numbers issued before 1965 are either odd numbers between 01 and 09 or even numbers between 10 and 98.
I’m told the purpose of this rigamarole is so some sharp-eyed sleuth at SS HQ can look at a Social Security number and say, “Ha! Group number 99 from the state of Maine! We haven’t issued them yet — this number is a fake!”
Seems to me it would be just as easy to look the thing up in the Big Book of Issued Numbers. But I bet if I was a federal bureaucrat trying to justify my appropriation, I’d come up with stuff like this too.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.