New Histories of Social Security

Endorsed by the Society for History in the Federal Government

Friday, April 3, 2020, 1:00 PM - 2:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: General/Survey; Intellectual; Social and Cultural


The history of Social Security, the largest and most persistent U.S. social program, has largely been written by political scientists and sociologists, whose interest in policy development and institutionalism has neglected the social and intellectual meanings of Social Security. This panel will showcase the work of three historians who are working to deepen our understanding of Americans' experiences with the Social Security program. While primarily focused on the Old Age and Survivors' Insurance (OASI) portion of the program, the panel as a whole will consider the broader meanings and effects of the program, from its impact on how we understand economic citizenship and the state's knowledge about us to the role of social organizing in the program's expansion in the 1950s to the program's role in the creation of the postwar "baby boom generation."

Papers Presented

Nine Digits

This paper takes up the history not of the Social Security program but rather its by-product, the Social Security number (SSN): those familiar nine digits that were annexed to most Americans’ lives during the twentieth century. SSNs are typically treated as incidental to the larger story of modern state building—or today, often as a risk, given that one’s unique digits serve as an index to a trove of personal information. My presentation instead examines the SSN as a window onto the ways Americans have envisioned the modern state and their own affiliation to it during a century when attitudes toward the federal government shifted dramatically but unevenly. For example, the SSN for both African American laborers and wage-earning women in the early days of Social Security was a profoundly important—even cherished—marker of economic citizenship and economic rights.  However, Americans have often prided themselves on being individuals rather than numbers, and the SSN was already in the 1930s a flash point for partisan battles over the size and scope of the U.S. state. Contests over the import of these nine digits continue into the present, when SSNs are discussed as an (even the) enabler of state tracking and surveillance capitalism even as they are among the most prized possessions of undocumented immigrants. By detailing some of these stories, I hope to shed light on not only the career of the SSN, but also the material and affective history of U.S. citizenship buried in mundane bureaucratic paperwork.

Presented By
Sarah E. Igo, Vanderbilt University

How Social Security Shaped Americans’ Ideas about Generations and the Courses of Lives

This paper argues that Social Security (inadvertently) created a body of data that facilitated the rationalization of human and generational life courses in the second half of the twentieth century. By the 1980s, however, generational frames had been adopted by conservative critics of the welfare state to argue that the “baby boom generation” threatened the viability of Social Security’s old age insurance program. Data once intended to plan for a new state program influenced ideas about the shape of ordinary lives and then became a tool for dismantling the system that created it. The paper draws on primary sources from the Social Security Administration archives, published government and social scientific reports, and the proceedings of conferences held by Americans for Generational Equity. It employs methods from science and technology studies to discuss the cultural power that allowed the Social Security bureaucracy to affect the way ordinary people understood their lives. Unlike much historical work on Social Security, it is less concerned with the political horse-trading that founded the system and fueled its expansion than with its changing cultural influence. It has a closer kinship with histories of Social Security and the welfare state that have been attentive to the ways the program instantiated and propagated norms concerning gender, race, and sexuality. In that vein of scholarship, this paper looks more closely at new norms concerning age and generation that developed in the context of Social Security’s ascent.

Presented By
Dan Bouk, Colgate University

Writing for Social Security

Social Security, claims its most influential biographer, Martha Derthick, has been the epitome of undemocratic, autonomous policy making by experts. But the story of Social Security features only experts because its story tellers have only been concerned with experts. Indeed, Derthick excused the absence of Social Security’s recipients in her narrative by asserting that “it is possible to appraise the making of public choices without detailed knowledge of the subjects of choice.” This is not so, and excluding ordinary Americans from American social policy history was a choice not a matter of fact.

My paper reorients the foundation laid by scholars of American political development to explore the ways Social Security recast citizens’ relationships to the state after World War II. When we look at the social history of Social Security, we find congressional representatives addressing the minute financial ramifications of legislation with citizens who were demanding answers from their leaders. Hundreds of letters regarding Social Security fill the files of postwar elected officials—thousands more can be found in the files of committee chairmen who oversaw major legislation throughout the 1950s. Even as the state became more technocratic, more expert driven, and ultimately less democratic in many areas of policy, Social Security’s expansion was demanded and watched over carefully by ordinary citizens. Social Security was a critical platform on which Americans engaged the state, their representatives, and the government’s duty to their well-being.

Presented By
Eric S. Yellin, University of Richmond

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Karen Tani, University of California, Berkeley
Karen Tani is Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of States of Dependency: Welfare, Rights, and American Governance, 1935-1972 (Cambridge University Press, 2016), which won the Cromwell Book Prize from the American Society for Legal History in 2017. Other published work, focusing on federalism, administrative agencies, constitutional equality guarantees, and subordinated groups, has appeared in the Yale Law Journal, the Law and History Review, Law & Social Inquiry, and Publius: The Journal of Federalism, among other venues. Tani is the first graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s J.D./Ph.D. program in American Legal History. Following her law school graduation, she clerked for Judge Guido Calabresi of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit and held two legal history fellowships, one at the New York University School of Law and the other at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

Presenter: Dan Bouk, Colgate University
Dan Bouk researches the history of bureaucracies, quantification, and other modern things shrouded in cloaks of boringness. He studied computational mathematics as an undergraduate at Michigan State, before earning a Ph.D. in history from Princeton University. His work investigates the ways that corporations, states, and the experts they employ have used, abused, made, and re-made the categories that structure our daily experiences of being human. His first book, How Our Days Became Numbered: Risk and the Rise of the Statistical Individual (Chicago, 2015), explored the spread into ordinary Americans' lives of the United States life insurance industry's methods for quantifying people, for discriminating by race, for justifying inequality, and for thinking statistically. His recent writings (published in Modern American History, Osiris, and Historical Studies in the Natural Sciences) put today's political and economic values of personal data in a much wider historical context and also explore the ways social scientists working with corporations and governments have rationalized the life cycle (and helped invent the "Baby Boomer"). He's currently writing a narrative history of the U.S. Census of 1940, and sharing his discoveries at

Presenter: Sarah E. Igo, Vanderbilt University
Sarah E. Igo (B.A., Harvard; Ph.D., Princeton) is Professor of History and Director of American Studies at Vanderbilt University, with affiliate appointments in Law, Political Science, Sociology, and Medicine, Health & Society. Igo teaches and writes about modern American intellectual, cultural, legal and political history, with research interests in the history of the human sciences, the sociology of knowledge, and the history of privacy and the public sphere. She is the author of the award-winning The Averaged American: Surveys, Citizens, and the Making of a Mass Public (Harvard University Press, 2007), which was an Editor’s Choice selection of the New York Times and one of Slate’s Best Books of 2007 as well as the winner of the President’s Award of the Social Science History Association and the Cheiron Book Prize and a finalist for the C. Wright Mills Award of the American Sociological Association. Her latest book, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Harvard University Press, 2018), has attracted attention in The New Yorker, Harper’s Magazine, The Nation, Dissent, and the New York Review of Books, among other venues, and was named one of the “Notable Non-Fiction Books of 2018” by The Washington Post. Igo has held fellowships from the Institute for Advanced Study, the American Council of Learned Societies, the Whiting Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, including a Mellon New Directions Fellowship in 2012-2015. She has also been a Visiting Scholar at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin, and a visiting fellow at the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale. Igo teaches a wide range of undergraduate and graduate courses. She was co-founder of the National Forum on the Future of Liberal Education, a national initiative to promote the liberal arts, and currently serves as the inaugural Faculty Head of Vanderbilt’s E. Bronson Ingram College.

Presenter: Eric S. Yellin, University of Richmond
Eric S. Yellin (PhD Princeton) is an associate professor of History and American Studies at the University of Richmond. He is the author of _Racism in the Nation’s Service: Government Workers and the Color Line in Woodrow Wilson's America_ (UNC 2013), the research for which he completed as a Kluge Fellow at the Library of Congress from 2010-2011. Yellin is currently at work on a history of Social Security, for which he received a 2018 Dirksen Congressional Research Grant. His public history writing has been featured in the Washington Post, USA Today, The Conversation, and elsewhere.