In The Field

The importance of the field office was known from the earliest days of social security. On December 2nd, 1935, the social security board appointed a field office committee to determine optimal locations for offices to provide direct public service. E.J. McCormick chairman for the field office committee stated that regardless of the construction of the act, there remains the obvious fact that its administration, particularly in the field, will either make or defeat the entire program.

In selecting sites for the field offices, the committee considered such factors as ease in administration, convenience to the public, and uniformity in the distribution of the workloads. The committee studied population and population densities, it addressed questions of accessibility in different geographical areas, and considered trading zones, and shopping areas that people frequently traveled. It also considered the number of wage earners living in that area, transportation facilities available, nature of employment and the availability of space and costs. In January 1936, the committee presented a plan to the SSB calling for the establishment of 89 district offices and 517 branch offices. However, due to budget constraints the total number was reduced from 606 to 397 offices. Each of the 397 offices were assigned to one of 12 geographic regions that made up the field organization. The first field offices were the 12 regional offices. These would service command centers across the U.S. With the task of sharing the workload of enrollment so that the SSB administrative headquarters in Washington, D.C. Would not be overwhelmed. By the end of 1936, 12 regional offices were open in Boston, New York, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Birmingham, Minneapolis, Kansas City, San Antonio, Denver, and San Francisco. There were also two territorial offices. One in Honolulu Hawaii and the other in Juneau, Alaska.

The first field office properly known as a district office opened in Austin, Texas on October 14th, 1936. Why Austin Texas? To understand this decision we need to go back to august 1935. Following the passage of the social security act, the budget appropriation bill was filibustered in the senate by senator Huey Long, a democrat from Louisiana. Long was a staunch opponent of president Roosevelt and the social security act. Congress adjourned without approving a budget for social security. As soon as the new session of congress convened in January 1936, house appropriations committee chairman, James Buchanan, a democrat from Texas, raised questions regarding the social security board's budget estimates. SSB chairman John Winant met with congressman Buchanan; and much to his surprise, learned that the representative wanted to cut the SSB's budget by 25%. Toward the end of the meeting, Buchanan raised the issue of the placement of the SSB's 12 regional offices. Chairman Buchanan informed Winant that he wanted one of the regional offices to be placed in the chairman's hometown of Austin, Texas. The congressman made it clear that if Winant wanted his help on the SSB's budget request that this was the quid pro quo that he had in mind. This presented a problem for Winant since the board had already selected San Antonio as the regional office for the southwest and had made a hiring commitment to the individual who would serve as the regional director. Eventually, SSB executive director Frank Bane stepped in and negotiated a compromise. The deal agreed upon was that Buchanan would stop his insistence that a regional office be located in Austin in exchange for the placement of the first field office in Austin. The final social security appropriation passed and was reduced by slightly less than 20%. Former foreign service employee Fred Rogers completed his training in Washington, D.C. And was named district manager for Austin. When Fred turned the key to the old post office building on October 14, 1936 he found a musty interior and equipment that consisted solely of dilapidated desks and chairs left behind by the post office. Three people visited the Austin office on opening day, including two reporters and congressman, James Buchanan. Fred spent more than a month as the sole employee before a staff of 50 was eventually hired.

The second field office opened up in Juneau, Alaska on October 27th, 1936. At this point in time, the territory of Alaska was still many years away from becoming a state. Regional director Hugh Wade and his staff of four had their office inside the territorial building. The first order of business for the Juneau office was the issuance of account number cards. This created a bit of work for the social security employees as many of the enrollees were Alaskan natives working in the canning factories. These Alaskan natives did not have surnames. In Inuit culture there is no need for a surname, but for a government accounting system, there is. This lack of surnames, maiden names, or family names meant that social security had to create a surname for the Inuit. The cannery bookkeepers also helped create surnames for their employees. Some of the surnames chosen by the natives were fanciful, some borrowed surnames from a friend or the person helping complete the enrollment form. And others indicated the village of residence. Determining the age of many natives was also a daunting task. Since the Inuit culture didn't have the same concept of time in calendar years like western culture. Another challenge was getting word of the new social security program to the natives. Alaska was a vast sprawling wilderness with many of the villages located in remote areas. Social security employees use dogsleds, riverboats, and aircraft to get the message of social security across a territory 586, 000 square miles in size. Where did the third field office open? Was it in New York City, Chicago, San Francisco? No. Naturally it was in Honolulu, Hawaii. That field office opened on November 1st, 1936 in the old federal building in downtown Honolulu.

Field office personnel had to be experts on not only the subject of old age benefits, but on all of the other aspects of the social security act as well. The public had difficulty differentiating between the various parts of the program. Therefore, the board instituted a two-week basic training course to get information to old field administrative and technical personnel. Before a person who would be working with the public reported to his assigned office, he first came to Washington for the course.

Across the country in 1937, field offices were opening. Many of them in donated offices which lack the most essential office equipment. Imagine coming into work on your first day and having to do what Jim Peebles of Portland, Oregon did, back in July 1937. His office didn't have enough chairs, so he borrowed chairs from the chamber of commerce, trucked them by hand for two blocks, and passed them through a window to his wife. Some workers reported to offices that were nothing more than an apartment building commandeered by the government and concerted into offices. Most early field offices had very small staffs, usually one to three. In certain cases, an office would only have a manager on staff. There were three positions in the field offices. The field manager, field assistant, and claims assistant. Initially these early field offices took claims, processed the paperwork and transmitted them to the claims division in Washington, D.C. For adjudication and payment. Following the 1939 amendments, field offices began to assume more claims work. That same year, a claims manual was distributed to the field. It was a slim one volume book that completely outlined the law and procedures for handling claims. In May of 1942, the claims division was decentralized and field offices began computing benefits, designating payees and determining entitlement. As the program grew, so did the role of the field office. From issuing social security numbers and taking claims for lump sum payments in 1937 to taking claims for monthly benefits in 1939. The next evolution in field operations came in 1947, when typewriters were taken away from the claims assistants, now called claims representatives, and given to full-time typists and stenos to handle the claims clerical work. This enabled claims reps to devote more time to interviewing claimants and created a more professional atmosphere. This 1940's social security newsreel describes the process of obtaining an account.


Millions of people in the united states and every walk of life have applied for and received social security cards. But few realize the tremendous job our government undertakes in setting up the millions of accounts which those cards identify. Accounts which ensure greater old age and family security. Take an average citizen, this man dressed in blue serge, for example, he might well be you. We'll call him Joe, Joe Johnson. He is going to the social security office in his town to apply for a social security card. So together, let's follow the procedure necessary to establish Joe's federal old age and survivor's insurance account. In such typical offices as this, workers throughout the country apply for and receive social security number cards, each of which proclaims that an individual, federal old age insurance account has been established for its owner. Joe has asked the clerk how he goes about making his application. She explains he must fill out an application and then offers to type the necessary information for him. The clerk asks Joe's full name, date and place of birth, parents' names, and so forth. After the form has been typed, Joe signs it and is directed to another desk. This second clerk takes Joe's application and from it copies the information on another form known as an office record. Account numbers are assigned serially as determined from these prenumbered office records. Then Joe gets his official social security card. The number on this card will be used to identify his account. Joe must not have more than one number. There is never, and we emphasize never, any need for a second number, though Joe may get a duplicate number if he loses his card. The numbers on Joe's four forms are the same. This is the beginning of his social security account identification. Joe is given his card and is instructed to guard it as a valuable record. He also gets a second copy for reference in case he loses the original. Next the application and office record are reviewed for accuracy. This service to the nation's wage earners is carried on in more than 300 local social security offices throughout the country. Each office, after reviewing, sends the original applications and office records to the accounting headquarters in Baltimore, Maryland. Here applications and duplicate records are received from all over the nation. Under the direction of joseph l. Fay, they are used as basic information to set up federal old age insurance accounts. The first Baltimore operation is to code surnames on the office records and original applications. This reduces Joe's last name to a handy reference symbol, which becomes j525. It simplifies matters. Like a nickname, it's easier. The office record now goes to the punch unit. Here an operator transfers Joe's account number, name, date of birth and so forth to what is known as a punch card. Punch cards are automatically read by machines which simplify and speed up handling of millions of individual records. Here is a card punched for Joe. The hole gives the same information as the office record, but look at the difference. Punch cards quickly handled by machines are difficult for human eyes to decipher. So this machine reads the holes and automatically prints Joe's name, date of birth and account number on top of the card. Next review clerks check office records with the printed information on top of corresponding punch cards. Every precaution is taken so that Joe and millions like him will have an accurate and permanent account set up. While the office record is being used, these men drop the original applications into automatic cameras. Cameras which photograph and greatly reduce size on safety film. This step preserves a true and permanent reproduction of Joe's application. It's just like taking a picture of a baby. You want to remember what it looks like. In one of these sealed drawers, thousands of photographed applications are filed, wound on spools like this. To give you an idea of size reduction, here is Joe's application compared with the film image. You can see how this step simplifies the storing and preserving of original records. Now let's come back to the punch card. This machine makes duplicates of the original. By having two cards for each account procedure is speeded up. The duplicate cards are now run through this machine which sorts them in alphabetical sequence, while the originals are kept in account number sequence. This provides a basis for a cross reference file of accounts. Cards sorted in alphabetical order are used by this machine to reproduce index strips for a nationwide alphabetical file. Here is joe Johnson's strip showing his full name, his index code, date of birth and account number. These strip when filed occupy a space about half as big as a football field, space which is guarded night and day to ensure a confidential record, confidential. One half acre of workers' names, dates of birth and social security account numbers, a nationwide alphabetical index file containing more than 40 million individual records of workers' accounts established. Over 40 million names representing the same number of persons for whom federal old age insurance becomes a stabilizing influence. An added source of security for them and their families. Among these 40 millions of index strip is Joe Johnson's. There are many thousands of Johnson's here. In fact there are over 4,000 Joe or joseph Johnson's alone. How do they keep 4,000 Joe Johnson's straight you ask. And how about the smiths. There must be hundreds of thousands of smiths. The answer is the account number and the date of birth. Another reason why Joe should have only one account number. In the next step this machine reads holes punched in the cards that were kept in account number sequence. It prints the information for each worker on large sheets which are bound in books like this and make up the nationwide numerical register. This machine using the numerically slotted punch card heads up Joe's ledger sheet on which his quarterly wages will later be recorded. A record from which his insurance benefits will be determined. Joe's federal old age and survivor's insurance account has now been established. Meanwhile, Joe Johnson unmindful of these procedures busies himself at his job. Conforming to law Joe's employer has asked for a record of his worker's social security account number. Joe cooperates by producing his account number card, which was issued to him in the local social security office. A clerk copies the number. The clerk is careful to check the accuracy of his record against Joe's card. Because federal old age insurance payments are made to workers on the basis of their earnings, every three months of the year Joe's employer sends the government a report of the wages his employees earn. The report lists each employee's name, his social security account number, and his earnings for the quarter year. This report is part of a tax return and is mailed to the collector's office of the bureau of internal revenue with a check to cover the amount of taxes prescribed by law. This includes the employer's own tax and an equal amount deducted from his employees' wages. The submission of the earnings report is the first step in a carefully planned procedure which assures millions of the nation's breadwinners an accurate accounting for their future federal old age insurance benefits. To follow this procedure we go to a district office of the bureau of internal revenue. Here in a bank like office employers' tax returns pour in day after day. These cashier clerks remove all checks and send the reports on to the audit unit. These clerks check the accuracy of each return by comparing wage totals with the amount of taxes reported by employers. The top portion of the return is removed and kept by the collector's office for a reference record. The itemized wage listings are now sent to the transmittal unit. Here another check is made of reported wage totals. The returns are then bundled and with a note of transmittal are sent to the social security accounting headquarters. The bureau of internal revenue maintains over 60 collectors' offices throughout the country. The procedure we have seen occurs in each of these, resulting in a nationwide flow of work to the social security board's accounting center in the city of Baltimore, Maryland. Employer tax returns are received and distributed to clerks in bundles of approximately 1,000. Each return is checked with the bureau of internal revenue's note of transmittal. This is done to make sure nothing has been lost on route. The returns having been carefully checked are now given over to the card punching unit. Here skilled operators punch an individual's card for each worker reported on the employer returns. The cards are known as earnings cards because they contain an individual record of quarterly wages. In this section over 30 million cards are punched every three months. By use of punch cards it becomes possible to maintain an individual and accurate record of wages earned by each worker. Here is Joe Johnson's earnings card after it has been punched. The punched holes record name, account number, and earnings for the quarter. Next the earnings cards are passed through this machine which reads the punched holes and accumulates a total of individual worker's earnings. The listed total is checked against the total as reported by the employer. This step shows up errors that might have occurred in the punching unit. At this point work blocks containing approximately 10,000 cards each are prepared for sorting. Sorting of earnings cards is necessary in order to get them in account number sequence. This must be done because the ledger sheets are filed in account number sequence. Cards must be sorted nine times. After each sorting has been completed its accuracy is checked by running a needle through the holes. If there is an error, it immediately shows up as indicated. This tabulating machine now receives the earnings cards. It automatically lists each of the cards and prints the accumulated total, which makes another check possible. The total obtained at this time must check against the figure recorded as correct for the block of work being handled. Any errors discovered are cleared up as in all other operations by the adjustment unit. Now we come to the collating procedure. At this point we must remember that the earnings card we saw punched for Joe Johnson represents his wages for three months, one quarter of the year. Similar cards have been punched for Joe for each of the preceding three quarters. In preparation for posting, this collating procedure now brings these four cards and the summary card together. The collating machine verifies the accuracy of each card with respect to name and account number. Cards that match fall in one rack. Faulty ones fall in this rack and are sent to the adjustment unit. Now to the last step, posting, here Joe's earnings for the year are permanently recorded on his ledger sheet. This is Joe Johnson's ledger sheet. These figures represent his earnings for the first three quarters of the year. In this posting operation the earnings cards are fed to the machines which automatically reads the holes in the earnings cards. Joe's earnings for the year with quarterly totals are permanently recorded. Here is the final result. This is the record of Joe's earnings for the four quarters and the yearly total. Joe's wages for the year have now been posted. Joe Johnson as he comes to work each day may be unmindful of these accounting procedures, but they continue as the years go by, continue with many checks and controls to assure Joe a rightful and accurate federal old age and survivor's insurance. Joe is one worker, but he represents millions, millions in jobs of every kind and description. Millions of breadwinners. For all of these American workers, added security with federal old age and survivor's insurance.