Little did Ida May Fuller know she would find a piece of history inside her mailbox when she opened it on a February day in 1940. When the 65-year-old retiree and lifelong Republican lifted the lid of the mailbox outside the front door of her Ludlow, Vermont, house, she found a check for $22.54 from the U.S. government. That check dated January 31, 1940, was the first payout from the Social Security program that had been enacted five years earlier by the federal government during the Great Depression.
The Social Security program is one of the most enduring legacies of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. The measure provided for compensation to the unemployed and payments to retirees over the age of 65 who contributed payroll tax deductions during their working years. “The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure. Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age,” Roosevelt said when he signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935.
Shortly after retiring from decades as a teacher and legal secretary, Ludlow dropped in at a Social Security office in nearby Rutland, Vermont, while doing errands and completed an application. “It wasn’t that I expected anything, mind you,” she recalled, “but I knew I’d been paying for something called Social Security and I wanted to ask the people in Rutland about it.”
When the first Social Security check—numbered 00-000-01—arrived at her house a little more than two months later, Fuller didn’t even notice the unique check number. “When I got my first check, I didn’t even stop to look at the number on it,” she told a reporter. “I just cashed it. I wanted the money.” Not until five years later did she learn that she received the first benefits payment under the Social Security program. The Social Security checks that arrived in Fuller’s mailbox every month supplemented the income she earned from renting a room in her house and selling the vegetables raised in her garden. In 1950, Congress passed an increase in Social Security benefits that boosted Fuller’s monthly check from $22.54 to $41.30. “You can’t live on it of course if you’ve got other expenses to pay, but it’s a help,” she told a reporter.