Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vt., received the first Social Security check on Jan. 31, 1940.
The check was numbered 00-00-0001, the first of the first batch of 220,000 checks issued to adults as well as children.
Born on a farm outside of Ludlow, Ida May Fuller attended the Black River Academy in Rutland, Vt., three years behind Calvin Coolidge. She worked for a while as a schoolteacher, then in 1905 began work as a legal secretary. She never married.
Between 1937 and her retirement in 1939, she paid a total of $24.75 in Social Security payroll taxes.
While running an errand on Nov. 4, 1939 she dropped by the Rutland Social Security office to inquire. Urged to apply for benefits, she filed her claim.
“It wasn’t that I expected anything, mind you, but I knew I’d been paying for something called Social Security and I wanted to ask the people in Rutland about it,” she said.
That first Social Security check was for $22.54, nearly what she had paid into the system.
Some critics thought it suspicious that a Vermonter received the first check because John Winant, former New Hampshire governor, was the first head of the Social Security Board.
But it was another New Englander who made sure Ida May Fuller got her check: Frances Perkins, President Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of Labor.
Perkins was born in Boston, grew up in Worcester and summered at her family homestead in Newcastle, Maine. Her ancestors included Revolutionary War orator James Otis.
Perkins persuaded Franklin Roosevelt to ride the wave of Townsend clubs to support a federal retirement program for workers. California physician Francis Townsend started the clubs after he saw three elderly women rooting through a garbage can for food. During the Great Depression, more than half of older Americans were poor.
Thousands of Townsend clubs pressured Congress to pass an old age pension plan. Sensing the opportunity, Roosevelt acquiesced to Perkins’ demand. He assigned her to run the committee that would craft the legislation.
“The Taxing Power, My Dear”
As soon as the Social Security Act passed, conservatives in Congress began to attack it as unconstitutional. Frances Perkins had made sure it would withstand judicial scrutiny. Months before Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on Aug. 14, 1935, she had consulted with Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone, a native of Chesterfield, N.H.
Kirstin Downey describes what happened in her biography of Perkins:
At an afternoon part at Stone’s home, Frances was drinking tea with the justice when he asked her how things were going. She told him they were wrestling with how to establish an economic security program. Stone looked around to see if anyone was listening, then leaned in toward Frances. “The taxing power, my dear, the taxing power,” he said in quiet tones.
The Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the Social Security Act.
Paying for My Expenses
Though Ida May Fuller had paid into Social Security for only three years, she received monthly checks until her death on Jan. 27, 1975 at 100 years old. She received a total of $22,888.92 from Social Security.
During her last eight years, Ida May Fuller lived with her niece in Brattleboro, Vt. Near the end of her life she told a reporter her Social Security benefits “come pretty near paying for my expenses.”
She was described in 1955 as “a kindly, likable, practical and placid woman whose ability to derive deep satisfaction from simple, wholesome living has eased her through life.”
But as a Republican, she hadn’t voted for Franklin Roosevelt.
Ida May Fuller was 76 when the photo at the top of the page was taken in 1950. Congress had just voted an 80 percent raise in benefits, and she held up her check for $41.30. She didn’t think Congress should have raised the benefits.
With thanks to The Woman Behind the New Deal, by Kirstin Downey. This story was updated in 2021.