"What's the deal with social security cards?" asks a standup comedian. "My library card is made of durable plastic. So's my grocery store rewards card, and ten thousand years from now, they'll both be sitting in some landfill, as solid as ever. But my social security card, my official bit of ID from the federal government? Made of newsprint from the 1870s, and it'll completely dissolve if it gets slightly moist."

One urban legend says social security cards are purposely designed to self-destruct. If you drop it and lose it, so says this claim, it'll quickly fall apart, preventing anyone from getting their hands on it. But according to the Social Security Administration, the card is actually quite durable, designed to last 50 years. It won't last that long if you drop it in a puddle, or carry it around in your wallet every day, but they say you're not supposed to do that. You're supposed to store it somewhere secure, like a cool dry desk drawer or your titanium vault.

The reason it's flimsy paper instead of something tough like a credit card is that this makes it harder to counterfeit. It might not look like much, but that material ("banknote paper") is unique, and that weird shop down the street that makes fake IDs can't duplicate banknote paper easily. The ink actually is designed to easily erase, but it's not so the whole card will easily get destroyed. It's so any attempt to change the writing on the card—say, to wipe out text that reads "Not Valid for Employment"—will also easily smudge the surrounding pattern and reveal the fraud.

At one point, the government considered making the card a whole lot more durable than a piece of paper or a piece of plastic. They were going to stamp the numbers onto metal tags, much like the IDs that soldiers wear at war. This reached the prototype stage but never took off as an idea. People who heard the plan weren't fans, thinking everyone in the country would be forced to wear these tags at all times, like pets. 

It was William Randolph Hearst who spread the idea that the tags would be a compulsory part of everyone's wardrobe, and it was he who first coined the term "dog tags." The military, who'd been using the tags since World War I, now took to calling their own tags by that name. Incidentally, military dog tags did include social security numbers, for decades. Only in 2015 did the Army decide it was better to use some other ID number instead, rather than let every person who finds a dog tag open 20 new credit cards in the soldier's name. 

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Top image: Social Security Administration

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