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Henningsen: Ida May Fuller

When Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935 planners believed the scheme would work forever. After all, average life expectancy for American women was 63; 60 for men. Actuarial tables demonstrated that those who reached 65 didn’t last much longer and wouldn’t drain the system by collecting benefits for years and years. Plus, benefits were meant to supplement people’s retirement savings, not replace them. Surely, no one would count on them to meet all their expenses. Finally, the system would be self-sustaining: people would pay into it via payroll deductions for the extent of their working lives but draw Social Security for only a few years.

When the system went into operation in 1940, great public attention went to the first recipient. Ida May Fuller, 66, a lifelong Republican from Ludlow, Vermont, received Social Security check number 00-000-001 in the amount of $22.54.

Aunt Ida, as she was known, was a maiden lady and a retired legal secretary. Except for her party affiliation, she was precisely what President Franklin Roosevelt and his policy planners had in mind – a kind of poster child for the program. But Ida May Fuller went on to demonstrate the flaws of most of the assumptions on which planners based the program.

Those actuarial tables showing that people didn’t live much past 65? Aunt Ida made it to 100, drawing checks every step of the way.

The belief that benefits were supplemental only? Ida May told reporters that her monthly checks “come pretty near paying for my expenses.”

The conviction that people would pay in a lot but take only a little? Ida May Fuller contributed less than $100 over three years and received $22,888.92 in benefits.

Even she thought that was a problem. In 1970, at 95, she told reporters payments were too high. “Every time they raise it,” she said, “they raise the amount taken away from the working people who pay into it, and it’s just getting to be too much of a burden.”

Ida May Fuller represented the future planners hadn’t anticipated. Now, many predict that, unless Congress makes some changes, Social Security’s disability fund will run out next year; the retirement fund will go bust in 2034.

Vic Henningsen is a teacher and historian.
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