Report to Congress on Options for Enhancing the Social Security Card



This report responds to laws passed in 1996(1) that require the Commissioner of Social Security to develop a prototype of a counterfeit-resistant Social Security card and to study and report on different methods of improving the Social Security card application process. The report also includes a required evaluation of the cost and workload implications of issuing a counterfeit-resistant card to all persons over a 3-, 5-, and 10-year period, and an evaluation of the feasibility and cost implications of imposing a user fee for Social Security cards.

To provide a foundation for evaluating enhanced Social Security card options, we have included a brief history of the Social Security number (SSN) and card; a description of the evolution and expansion of the use of the SSN and the card; and an overview of the current application and issuance process.

See Appendix A for legislative language.


On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. One of the first major tasks facing the Social Security Board (the predecessor to the Social Security Administration (SSA)) was to register over 2 million employers and 26 million workers covered by the Social Security Act. To keep track of earnings, the Board selected a nine-digit number, issued on a card with the worker's name. Treasury regulations in 1936 established that workers covered by Social Security had to apply for an SSN.

Treasury issued this regulation because the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), under the Treasury Department was required by law to collect the taxes imposed by the Federal Insurance Contributions Act.

Because over 26 million SSNs had to be assigned in a short period (by January 1937), the Board also chose to accept a person's allegations about personal identifying information, (such as name, date and place of birth, sex, parents' names, address, etc.) to receive a number. Evidence of identity was thought unnecessary and inappropriate. The process had to be as simple as possible because of the short period of time in which to assign SSNs and issue the new cards. There was also a great deal of public concern about the implications of large-scale, government record-keeping. Rigorous issuance procedures would have fostered such concerns.

The Board recognized that a system for assigning SSNs based on self-certification could cause problems. Multiple numbers could be assigned to the same person if the applicant filed more than once and the information was different, or if the two applications were filed so close together in time that the second number was assigned before the first was posted to SSA records. Over the years, SSA has adopted screening techniques to identify and cross-refer multiple numbers to ensure proper benefit payments.

Attached at Appendix B is The Chronology of SSN and Card Events. 1. Section 111 of P.L. 104-193, "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 " (Welfare Reform) and section 657 of P.L. 104-208, Division C, "Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 " (Immigration Reform)