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.
A descendant of Mayflower passengers, Fuller was born in 1874 on a farm outside Ludlow. After working as a school teacher for a dozen years, she attended business school and then worked as a legal secretary at a Ludlow law firm for 24 years before her retirement in November 1939.
Shortly after retiring, 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.
Ironically, the Social Security recipient was hardly a New Deal booster. Vermont was one of two states that voted for Roosevelt’s opponent in the 1936 presidential election, and Fuller, like many of her neighbors, was a Republican who favored limited government.
She was a high school classmate of Republican President Calvin Coolidge, and the partners in the law firm in which she worked included William Stickney, a former Republican governor of Vermont, and John Sargent, who served as Coolidge’s attorney general.
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.
In 1954 she told the press that she supported another increase proposed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. “I do hope it passes,” she said. “I’ll use the extra cash to paint my house.” When another increase was proposed in 1970, however, Fuller opposed it. “It’s been raised as far as it ought to go,” she said. “Every time they raise it, 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.”
When Social Security was enacted in 1935, the average life expectancy of an American woman was 64, and 60 for an American man. Fuller, who never married or had children, defied all the actuarial tables. She collected more than 400 monthly checks before her death in 1975 at the age of 100.
Fuller received quite a healthy return on her contributions to the Social Security system. For three years prior to her retirement, she paid $24.75 of payroll taxes into the federal safety net. In the 35 years after her retirement, she received $22,888.92 in benefits, 924 times what she contributed to the program.
Since its inception, Social Security has provided support to tens of millions of Americans like Fuller. Approximately 67 million Americans received benefits from programs administered by the Social Security Administration in 2017, including 9 out of 10 individuals aged 65 and older.