In “The Birth of Social Security” (April/May, 1979) author Kenneth Davis outlined some of the flabbiness and financial uncertainties that plague the system today and might, he wrote, bring it to the edge of a “great crisis.” Whether or not a crisis is impending, one wonders if the present operation can even begin to stack up against the ad hoc “social security system” worked out in 1847 by John Chaffin, gentleman, age seventy-three, and his son, John Emerson Chaffin, yeoman, age twentytwo, both of Holden, Massachusetts. The story is told by Mrs. Nancy C. Knox of Princeton, New Jersey:
“On April 24,1847, the elder Chaffin sold the 134-acre family farm to his son for $3,000. Later in the same day, curiously enough, yet another deed was executed, in which father John paid $1,500 to buy back half of the same farm, but this time with a lengthy proviso attached. Young Chaffin now owned $1,500 and half a farm; he was to earn the rest, to wit: by providing for ‘my honoured father and mother during their natural lives in the following manner: to provide them with good and suitable meats, drinks and vegetables and groceries with any and all things necessary to furnish a good and suitable table for their board and sustenance; to cook and furnish them with good and suitable board, or to pay for their board where either or both may wish to live… to provide them with good and suitable clothing of all kinds which they shall wish for their convenience and comfort; to provide them with all the wood they want of a good quality fitted for stoves or fireplaces as they shall direct… to provide and keep a suitable horse, carriage, and harness for their use when ordered by them; to have the use of one half the house they now occupy; to provide them with suitable help and attendants in sickness and in health subject to their order; to pay their doctoring, nursing, and funeral charges.…’ ”
The system worked without a hitch, and young Chaffin did his duty for the remaining thirteen years of his parents’ lives. Not as much can be said for the recent experience of Miss Duane WiIkins, as reported in the New York Times in February of this year. Miss Wilkins, it seems, was writing down her Social Security number for her dentist when he stopped her. “That can’t be your number,” he said. “That’s my number.” And so it was; they both had the same number—363-14-9879—hers issued six years ago, his thirty-five years ago. “Virtually impossible,” said the local bureaucrats, who then passed the buck to the Social Security records center in Baltimore.