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Are Social Security numbers "recycled"? If not, then why is my number lower than my (older) boyfriend's? If you add the current population (now about 250,000,000) to the number of Americans who have died since 1935 (when Social Security began), wouldn't the resulting number exceed nine digits in an S.S. number, proving my little theory about recycling? OK, Cecil, tell me I'm full of blarney, but what do the numbers represent? --Lisa W., New York

Cecil wishes he could tell you Social Security numbers were as fraught with meaning as the driver's license numbers issued by some states, which encode everything but your IQ, but no such luck. Prior to 1973 the first three digits indicated the state of the issuing Social Security office. Since 1973 the first three digits "are determined by the zip code of the mailing address shown on the application for a Social Security number," it says here. But it's still basically done by states. The remaining digits are simply a serial number. To date recycling hasn't been necessary, but more on this in a moment.

So you can make sure they didn't screw up and give you a wrong number with God knows what ghastly consequences for your retirement, here's how the numbers are assigned:

001-003 NH 237-246 NC 756-763 TN 501-502 ND 530,680 NV

004-007 ME 681-690 NC 416-424 AL 503-504 SD 531-539 WA

008-009 VT 247-251 SC 425-428 MS 505-508 NE 540-544 OR

010-034 MA 654-658 SC 587-588 MS 509-515 KS 545-573 CA

035-039 RI 252-260 GA 752-755 MS 516-517 MT 602-626 CA

040-049 CT 667-675 GA 429-432 AR 518-519 ID 574 AK

050-134 NY 261-267 FL 676-679 AR 520 WY 575-576 HI

135-158 NJ 589-595 FL 433-439 LA 521-524 CO 750-751 HI

159-211 PA 268-302 OH 659-665 LA 650-653 CO 577-579 DC

212-220 MD 303-317 IN 440-448 OK 525,585 NM 580 VI

221-222 DE 318-361 IL 449-467 TX 648-649 NM 580-584 PR

223-231 VA 362-386 MI 627-645 TX 526-527 AZ 596-599 PR

691-699 VA 387-399 WI 468-477 MN 600-601 AZ 586 GU

232-236 WV 400-407 KY 478-485 IA 528-529 UT 586 AS

232 NC 408-415 TN 486-500 MO 646-647 UT

Some states were assigned additional numbers due to population growth. Numbers that show up for more than one state were reassigned or cover several small localities. Until 1963, workers covered under the Railroad Retirement Act, which predated Social Security, were given numbers between 700 and 728. The Philippines prior to independence had 586. You're fascinated, I'm sure.

The question one might ask is: Why should a Social Security number mean anything--why not just make it a straight serial number? No reason, from what I can gather; it's mainly a holdover from the old days. Before 1973, social security numbers were issued by local field offices. To prevent duplication, states were allocated blocks of numbers. In 1973, number issuance was centralized at Social Security Administration HQ in Baltimore. The feds could easily have switched to the straight serial method at this point but didn't, apparently out of a primordial bureaucratic instinct that once a system, always a system.

No big deal, I guess, except that the numbers will run out faster than they might have otherwise--that is, as soon as the last block of a million numbers is allocated and the first state begins to run dry. Happily for us, this is yet another looming crisis we can fob off on our grandchildren. About 360 million Social Security numbers have been issued to date, 211 million of which are "active," i.e., their holders are still breathing. Since there are about a billion possible numbers (actually 999 million, since nobody seems to want the 000 series), we'll be halfway into the next century before it's time to panic. At the moment Social Security masterminds aren't sweating it--their most pressing concern isn't running out of numbers, it's running out of money.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.

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