“Roosevelt’s and the other founders’ words and actions make clear that they envisioned Social Security to be a permanent part of the economy, once the Great Depression was history.” (Photo: Courtesy of AFGE, Flickr | CC 2.0)
Eighty-three years later, Social Security addresses universal economic risks that have always been with us and always will be.
By Nancy Altman / 08.14.2018
President Franklin Roosevelt signed our Social Security system into law eighty-three years ago today, on August 14, 1935. It has stood the test of time.
Social Security protects us against the economic consequences of risks to which all of us are vulnerable. Rich or poor, any of us can suffer a devastating, disabling accident or illness. Rich or poor, any of us can die prematurely, leaving young children behind. Rich or poor, all of us hope to grow old. When we do, if we are to have a dignified and independent retirement, we need a guaranteed steady income which we cannot and will not outlive.
Social Security addresses universal economic risks that have always been with us and always will be. That explains why more than 170 countries today have some form of social security. It also explains Social Security’s deep and longstanding popularity in our country. In a survey conducted in 1936—one year after the enactment of Social Security, before a penny of benefits was expended—68 percent of those surveyed expressed approval for the new and untested program. By 1944, that percentage was a nearly unanimous 96 percent. That high level of support has been consistent throughout the last eighty years.
Despite Social Security’s more than eighty-year history, some elites either do not understand Social Security or willfully refuse to understand it. They talk about providing benefits to those who need them, as if the program were government largesse, which it is not. Rather, Social Security is insurance that is earned through work and paid for with premiums regularly deducted from workers’ pay.
In addition, elites often speak as if the trust funds were some kind of gimmick, somehow less real than private pension trust funds. Perhaps most absurd are those who claim that what the creators of Social Security intended is not the program we now have.
Indeed, today’s discussions of Social Security are replete with revisionist history—statements made today about what was or was not intended by its original creators and champions. Some of today’s revisionist statements are zombie lies: Claims made and refuted again and again over the last eighty years; claims that refuse to die.
Former Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY), for example, has stated that Social Security “was never intended as a retirement program. It was set up in ’37 and ’38 to take care of people who were in distress—ditch diggers, wage earners….” Nationally syndicated columnist George Will claims, “People forget Social Security was advocated … in the 1930s, as a way of getting people to quit working, because they thought we were confined to a permanent scarcity of jobs in this country.”
Syndicated columnist Robert Samuelson in a column entitled, “Would Roosevelt recognize today’s Social Security?” even claims, “Social Security has evolved into something he never intended and actively opposed.” Samuelson, Will, Simpson, and the other revisionist historians are wrong. Indeed, to state it bluntly, those modern-day statements are all nonsense.
Roosevelt’s and the other founders’ words and actions make clear that they envisioned Social Security to be a permanent part of the economy, once the Great Depression was history. They knew that the nation would return to full employment. When we did, the goal was to have in place Social Security and other programs that improved the economic security of all Americans and prevented, as much as possible, the human cost imposed by the ups and downs of all modern economies. In particular, Social Security was not designed to alleviate the suffering of people caught in the immediate distress of the Great Depression, nor to get people to quit their jobs. Rather, it was set up as wage insurance that people earned.
This should be obvious to anyone with even a superficial knowledge of Social Security’s history. Because the architects knew that it would take time and work to earn Social Security’s benefits, the Social Security Act of 1935 was written so that not a single penny of those earned monthly retirement benefits was payable for seven years!
But the absurdity of those revisionist historians goes much further than simply being wrong on the facts. They seek to expunge the far-sighted and noble vision of Social Security’s founders. President Roosevelt and those around him had a sweeping vision that still has yet to be fully realized.
When Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 into law, he described it as “a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete.” He and his colleagues were anything but short-sighted. They were not simply and solely focused on the immediate distress caused by the Great Depression, as the revisionists would have us believe. Rather, they saw Social Security as a “cornerstone,” a beginning on which to build.
Despite today’s revisionists, the structure and size of today’s Social Security program is completely consistent and harmonious with what Roosevelt began. Medicare is consistent with a first step toward the vision of universal health insurance. The revisionists are wrong when they claim that Roosevelt would not recognize today’s Social Security and Medicare.
He would be surprised that more progress hadn’t been made, but he would absolutely recognize how those who came later built on what he envisioned and began. Now it is our turn. It is time to expand Social Security and enact an improved Medicare for All.