“If, as our Constitution tells us, our FederalFranklin D. Roosevelt
Government was established ...
‘to promote the general welfare,’ it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends.”
Message to Congress June 8, 1934
Social Security is America’s biggest social program, providing benefits to over 59 million people. It is one of the largest single items in the federal budget, representing over 24 percent of all spending.
On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act, a monumental piece of legislation that forever changed the relationship between the federal government and the American people.
The Committee on Economic Security, headed by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, had presented its report to the President on January 15, 1935. Two days later FDR transmitted its recommendations to Congress. For the next seven months legislators and interest groups struggled to find the appropriate mix of benefits, fundings, and coverage that would secure passage of the legislation. FDR had referred to the benefits provided by the bill as “our plain duty” to the elderly, infirm, and widowed mothers with children. In the course of the debate, large blocs of workers—including farm and domestic workers—were excluded. Many of them were minorities. But Social Security as it was enacted was an important beginning and in subsequent years, Congress enacted legislation to enroll virtually all workers. With the passage of Medicare and Medicaid under President Lyndon Johnson, the nation took the first steps toward national medical coverage, which was originally envisioned by the Committee on Economic Security. Seventy-five years later, with the Affordable Care Act of 2010, Congress has passed national medical insurance for all Americans.
Other measures created in 1935 —the National Labor Relations Act, also known as the Wagner Act (July 5), the Rural Electrification Administration (May 11), and the Works Progress Administration (April 8), redefined the peoples’ relationship to their government by providing the right to collective barganing for workers and the blessings of electricity for farmers. Americans from coast to coast benefited from the flourishing of human labor that gave us 650,000 miles of roads, 78,000 bridges, 125,000 new buildings, 800 airports, 475,000 works of art, 276 books and concerts and plays that were performed for many millions.
It is with all these New Deal landmarks in mind that we salute the most enduring of them all in offering ‘Our Plain Duty’: FDR and America’s Social Security.
This application, along with additional primary sources online gives educators and students the story of this society changing legislation.
“Long before ... the depression descended on the nation, millions of our people were living in wastelands of want and fear.”FDR's statement upon signing an amended
Social Security Act, August 11, 1939
The dark months before FDR’s inauguration had been the bleakest of the Great Depression. The banking system was near collapse, one in four workers was unemployed, and prices and production were down by a third from their 1929 levels. Prior to Social Security, the elderly, unemployed and infirm lived lives shadowed by insecurity.
Almost half of America’s senior citizens could not support themselves. Millions lived in poverty. Most had no access to private pension plans, and the limted state-run programs had paltry benefits and difficult age and residence requirements. Older Americans also faced age-discrimination, as younger workers were often able to perform jobs more quickly.
The unemployed also lived on the razor’s edge. By 1933, one in four workers was out of work. With no federal safety net of unemployment benefits, a layoff notice could swiftly lead to poverty. Sudden illness or accident could bring disaster.
By 1933, at least one in five Americans survived on charity and state and local relief.
Almost half of America’s senior citizens could not support themselves. Millions lived in poverty. Most had no access to private pension plans, and the limited state-run programs that existed had paltry benefits and stringent age and residence requirements.
Older jobseekers struggled with the added burden of age discrimination. They worked until they couldn’t any longer or were fired, sought help from families or charities, and tapped whatever savings they had. But in the depths of the Great Depression, jobs and family assistance became harder to secure.
In the absence of substantial government relief programs, free food was distributed with private funds in some urban centers to large numbers of the unemployed.
Conditions worsened as the Great Depression took hold of the nation. Sparked by the stock market crash of 1929, Americans faced an endless battle against high unemployment, poverty, and plunging farm incomes.
In rural areas—where almost half of Americans lived—sharply falling crop prices brought disaster. Farmers defaulted on bank loans and lost their land. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers faced eviction. Farm laborers’ wages were slashed.
In the 1930s, much of the south western Great Plains experienced frequent dust storms and loss of agricultural income.
Click play to view a short video clip of the Depression-era Dust Bowl film The Plow That Broke the Plains, directed by Pare Lorentz. To view the complete film on YouTube, click here:
Many were forced to pick up their lives and move west in the hope for finding other work.
In the weeks before FDR took office in March 1933, conditions went from bad to worse. During the winter of 1932-1933, the country’s banking system began to collapse. In January and February, 4,000 banks were forced out of business. Since bank accounts were not government-insured, millions lost their life savings.
During the banking crisis, many people resorted to privately printed currency called “scrip.”
As the nation suffered, its government seemed paralyzed. President Herbert Hoover had tried to combat the Depression, but he believed through limited government and relief through private charity. Though he eventually approved credit assistance for banks and businesses and some public construction spending, Hoover was reluctant to fund massive public works projects, provide extensive federal relief money to the unemployed, or increase government regulation of the economy. By 1933, he was reviled and exhausted.
A New President, A New Deal
“This great nation will endure as it has endured,FDR, Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933
will revive and will prosper ...”
FDR opened his inaugural address with these words of reassurance. Then, in bold language that reverberates in our public memory, he proclaimed, “So first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself…”
The greatest applause came near the end of Roosevelt’s speech,
when he declared that if Congress didn’t act, he would ask for
“broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency,
as great as the power that would be given to me if we were
in fact invaded by a foreign foe.”
Americans were ready to grant FDR sweeping power. As he asserted, “This nation asks for action, and action now.”
This is a day of consecration. I am certain that my fellow Americans expect that on my induction into the Presidency I will address them with a candor and a decision which the present situation of our Nation impels. This is preeminently the time to speak the truth, the whole truth, frankly and boldly. Nor need we shrink from honestly facing conditions in our country today. This great Nation will endure as it has endured, will revive and will prosper. So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance. In every dark hour of our national life a leadership of frankness and vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.
In such a spirit on my part and on yours we face our common difficulties. They concern, thank God, only material things. Values have shrunken to fantastic levels; taxes have risen; our ability to pay has fallen; government of all kinds is faced by serious curtailment of income; the
means of exchange are frozen in the currents of trade; the withered leaves of industrial enterprise lie on every side; farmers find no markets for their produce; the savings of many years in thousands of families are gone.
More important, a host of unemployed citizens face the grim problem of existence, and an equally great number toil with little return. Only a foolish optimist can deny the dark realities of the moment.
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it. Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because rulers of the exchange of mankind's goods have failed through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
True they have tried, but their efforts have been cast in the pattern of an outworn tradition. Faced by failure of credit they have proposed only the lending of more money. Stripped of the lure of
profit by which to induce our people to follow their false leadership, they have resorted to exhortations, pleading tearfully for restored confidence. They know only the rules of a generation of self-seekers. They have no vision, and when there is no vision the people perish.
The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to the ancient truths. The measure of the restoration lies in the extent to which we apply social values more noble than mere monetary profit.
Happiness lies not in the mere possession of money; it lies in the joy of achievement, in the thrill of creative effort. The joy and moral stimulation of work no longer must be forgotten in the mad chase of evanescent profits. These dark days will be worth all they cost us if they teach us that our true destiny is not to be ministered unto but to minister to ourselves and to our fellow men.
Recognition of the falsity of material wealth as the standard of success goes hand in hand with the abandonment of the false belief that public office and high political position are to be valued only by the standards of pride of place and personal profit; and there must be an end to a conduct in banking and in business which too often has given to a sacred trust the likeness of callous and selfish wrongdoing. Small
wonder that confidence languishes, for it thrives only on honesty, on honor, on the sacredness of obligations, on faithful protection, on unselfish performance; without them it cannot live.
Restoration calls, however, not for changes in ethics alone. This Nation asks for action, and action now.
Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.
Hand in hand with this we must frankly recognize the overbalance of population in our industrial centers and, by engaging on a national scale in a redistribution, endeavor to provide a better use of the land for those best fitted for the land. The task can be helped by definite efforts to raise the values of agricultural products and with this the power to purchase the output of our cities. It can be helped by preventing realistically the tragedy of the growing loss through foreclosure of our small homes and our farms. It can be helped by insistence that the Federal, State, and local governments act forthwith
on the demand that their cost be drastically reduced. It can be helped by the unifying of relief activities which today are often scattered, uneconomical, and unequal. It can be helped by national planning for and supervision of all forms of transportation and of communications and other utilities which have a definitely public character. There are many ways in which it can be helped, but it can never be helped merely by talking about it. We must act and act quickly.
Finally, in our progress toward a resumption of work we require two safeguards against a return of the evils of the old order: there must be a strict supervision of all banking and credits and investments, so that there will be an end to speculation with other people's money; and there must be provision for an adequate but sound currency.
These are the lines of attack. I shall presently urge upon a new Congress, in special session, detailed measures for their fulfillment, and I shall seek the immediate assistance of the several States.
Through this program of action we address ourselves to putting our own national house in order and making income balance outgo. Our international trade relations, though vastly important, are in point of time and necessity secondary to the establishment of a sound national economy. I favor as a practical policy the putting of first things first.
I shall spare no effort to restore world trade by international economic readjustment, but the emergency at home cannot wait on that accomplishment.
The basic thought that guides these specific means of national recovery is not narrowly nationalistic. It is the insistence, as a first considerations, upon the interdependence of the various elements in and parts of the United States—a recognition of the old and permanently important manifestation of the American spirit of the pioneer. It is the way to recovery. It is the immediate way. It is the strongest assurance that the recovery will endure.
In the field of world policy I would dedicate this Nation to the policy of the good neighbor—the neighbor who resolutely respects himself and, because he does so, respects the rights of others—the neighbor who respects his obligations and respects the sanctity of his agreements in and with a world of neighbors.
If I read the temper of our people correctly, we now realize as we have never realized before our interdependence on each other; that we cannot merely take but we must give as well; that if we are to go forward, we must move as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of a common discipline, because without such discipline no progress is
made, no leadership becomes effective. We are, I know, ready and willing to submit our lives and property to such discipline, because it makes possible a leadership which aims at a larger good. This I propose to offer, pledging that the larger purposes will bind upon us all as a sacred obligation with a unity of duty hitherto evoked only in time of armed strife.
With this pledge taken, I assume unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.
Action in this image and to this end is feasible under the form of government which we have inherited from our ancestors. Our Constitution is so simple and practical that it is possible always to meet extraordinary needs by changes in emphasis and arrangement without loss of essential form. That is why our constitutional system has proved itself the most superbly enduring political mechanism the modern world has produced. It has met every stress of vast expansion of territory, of foreign wars, of bitter internal strife, of world relations.
It is to be hoped that the normal balance of Executive and legislative authority may be wholly adequate to meet the unprecedented task before us. But it may be that an unprecedented demand and need
for undelayed action may call for temporary departure from that normal balance of public procedure.
I am prepared under my constitutional duty to recommend the measures that a stricken Nation in the midst of a stricken world may require. These measures, or such other measures as the Congress may build out of its experience and wisdom, I shall seek, within my constitutional authority, to bring to speedy adoption.
But in the event that the Congress shall fail to take one of these two courses, and in the event that the national emergency is still critical, I shall not evade the clear course of duty that will then confront me. I shall ask the Congress for the one remaining instrument to meet the crisis—broad Executive power to wage a war against the emergency, as great as the power that would be given to me if we were in fact invaded by a foreign foe.
For the trust reposed in me I will return the courage and the devotion that befit the time. I can do no less.
We face the arduous days that lie before us in the warm courage of national unity; with the clear consciousness of seeking old and precious moral values; with the clean satisfaction that comes from the stern
performance of duty by old and young alike. We aim at the assurance of a rounded and permanent national life.
We do not distrust the future of essential democracy. The people of the United States have not failed. In their need they have registered a mandate that they want direct, vigorous action. They have asked for discipline and direction under leadership. They have made me the present instrument of their wishes. In the spirit of the gift I take it.
In this dedication of a Nation we humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
This is the original reading copy I used March 4th.
Immediately after the inaugural ceremonies, FDR confronted the
banking crisis that threatened to destroy the nation’s economy.
On his first day in office he called Congress into special session
to pass emergency banking legislation. The next day FDR issued a
proclamation temporarily closing every bank in the nation. Treasury
officials, assisted by holdover members of Hoover Administration,
feverishly began work on a bank bill. Rushed to Congress on March 9,
the Emergency Banking Act was approved within hours. The bill gave
the government authority to examine bank finances and
determine which banks were stable enough to reopen.
All of the healthy banks would reopen on March 13, but would people trust them? FDR decided to go on nationwide radio on March 12 to convince Americans to return their money to the banks. America’s economic recovery depended upon their response.
Roosevelt’s radio address made a powerful impression. Instead of an oration, he used a relaxed speaking style that made people feel as if he were sitting in their homes speaking directly to them. “I can assure you,” he said, “that it is safer to keep your money in a reopened bank than it is to keep it under the mattress.”
Sixty million Americans listened to FDR’s speech, and the reaction was overwhelming. The next day, newspapers around the country reported long lines of people waiting to put their money back into the banks. The immediate crisis had passed.
Roosevelt had quickly forged a bond with the public. The press labeled his speech a “Fireside Chat.” It became the first of many informal radio addresses FDR made during his presidency.
Mail flooded the White House. Before 1933, relatively few people wrote to the president. Herbert Hoover’s mail averaged 5,000 letters a week. Under FDR that number exploded to 50,000. Roosevelt had begun to revolutionize the public’s relationship with the presidency, and Americans now felt comfortable communicating directly with their president.
Here is the transcript of one letter to FDR, written by G.T. Channing of Mercer Island, Washington. Channing wrote on March 12, 1933, right after hearing the President’s first Fireside Chat.
Dear Mr. President: My wife + I want to thank you for your radio talk this evening. While we don't know much about banking your talk made us feel we have a Big Brother in the White House that going to do real things for all of us. It made us feel at last our President + us common people are able to get together directly. Wish you'd do it right along. By the way, we have put your picture up in the kitchen where we can look at it, hopefully, when those darn interest payments, we can't pay now, worry us too much. We feel sure Big Pal (I'll be calling you 'Del' next) that you are going to do something to protect we small home owners. After all it is from our home life that the progress is generated that we need. We feel as we can bring God into our homes, in that proportion is created the spirit of real love + of real brotherhood. I say this because we feel sure from your radio talk of March 4th that you are not only a student of the bible, but one who puts the spiritual power into practice. What you said about the 'plague of locusts' we felt sure referred to the Pharaoh's of our financial system. And it's certainly time, too the money changers are driven out of the temple, especially the temple of the home owner. We feel that you are going to do this--+ make the spiritual 'word' a living force in our national life. That is the Real Remedy after all! Plus America's goal!
We feel that you are going to help to give us a better ideal than that of accumulating (+ hoarding) gold, to work for. We've needed a big brother like yourself to wake us up because it's our own fault. We have glorified the 'Big Hoarder' + exploiter until they have squeezed us dry of money + confidence. We feel now they have too, an organization of 'Big Brains' that can by subtle means (even apparent friendship) direct legislation + even our President--unless he co-operates with God + helps us also to be on His side. We need each other. Can't you talk to us every Sunday eve for a few minutes? (I almost said 'Del'). It would be something to look forward to. Something that would help us to start the new week right--and you could tell us how to help in the work. We want to back you up. We want to make this America something God can be proud of - now.
FDR’s quick action to save the nation’s banks was the crucial first step in meeting the crisis of the Great Depression, but it was only the opening act to the busiest period of presidential activity in American history.
During the next one hundred days, Roosevelt issued proclamations and executive orders and pushed a steady stream of legislation through Congress to relieve economic hardship, stimulate recovery, and forge lasting reforms. In one hundred days, he built the foundation for the New Deal and fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in the lives of the American people.
During the next one hundred days, Roosevelt issued proclamations and executive orders and pushed a steady stream of legislation through Congress to relieve economic hardship, stimulate recovery, and forge lasting reforms. In one hundred days, he built the foundation for the New Deal and fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in the lives of the American people.
Voices for Change
“It is probably our only chance inSecretary of Labor Frances Perkins to
twenty-five years to get a bill like this.”
Franklin D. Roosevelt on April 17, 1934
The administration was spurred on by pressure from powerful grassroots movements that emerged during the 1930s. However the cause for old age pensions is as old as the American republic.
Among its earliest advocates was Thomas Paine. In a 1795 pamphlet titled "Agrarian Justice," Paine proposed pensions for everyone age 50 or older (funded by an inheritance tax). The program included old age, disability, and survivors benefits.
The Civil War Pension System
An important precursor to Social Security was the extensive pension system Congress created for Civil War veterans and their widows and orphans. It included old age, disability, and survivors’ benefits.
In Europe, German Chancellor Otto van Bismarck pioneered government-sponsored old-age, unemployment, and health insurance in the 1880s. By the mid-1930s, nearly 30 nations around the world had enacted similar legislation.
But in America, despite calls for action by progressive era figures like Theodore Roosevelt, only workers compensation laws and very limited state-level pension and unemployment reforms were enacted.
By the 1930s, powerful grassroots movements gained popularity as they called for national action. In California, an unemployed 66-year-old doctor named Francis Townsend devised the Townsend Old Age Revolving Pension Plan.
He proposed that the federal government provide a $200 per month pension (around $3,300 in 2010) to every person age 60 or older. The pension would be funded by a national sales tax. Pensioners had to spend their monthly checks within 30 days. Townsend argued his program would revive the economy by stimulating consumer spending.
Critics of the Townsend Plan claimed it would simply transfer purchasing power from the young to the old, while doubling the national tax burden.
Critics of the Townsend Plan claimed it would simply transfer purchasing power from the young to the old, while doubling the national tax burden.
By 1935, thousands of Townsend Clubs boasted over two million members. The Townsend movement drew wide media attention. Time magazine reported on its first national convention in 1935. Millions of Americans signed petitions supporting Townsend’s pension plans.
Louisiana Senator Huey Long championed his “Share our Wealth” program which promised steep taxes on the rich to fund pensions and guarantee a minimum income of $2,500 ($40,000 in 2010 dollars) for everyone.
While reformers pushed for change by creating legislation and grassroots movements, many Americans directly wrote to FDR to plea for assistance and change. With FDR’S Fireside Chats, people viewed Roosevelt as someone they could talk to. Below are some of the messages Roosevelt received.
“It is hard to be old and not have anything. I do not own as much as one cent to my name, so I know God would bless you, if you could help us to get more money for pensions, so we would have enough to eat.”
“I am an old citizen of West Point and I am about 75 or 6 years old and Have Labored Hard all My days until depression Came on.and I Had No Job in three years... Please Sir do what you Can for me. I am to old to be turned out of doors... I aint got Nothing and Cant get Nothing.”
“We are Old and down and out of no reason of our own, would it be asking to much of our Government and the young generation to do by us as we have tried our best to do by them... We have been honorable citizens all along our journey, calamity and old age has forced its self upon us. Please do not send us to the Poor Farm.”
“Kindly allow me to write you this letter to let you know how hard it is for my husband and I to get along. We are both aged now and feeble. My husband is 67 years old and I am 71 years old. My husband is blind in one eye and has been ruptured for the last 10 years and is unable to work. Myself I am crippled up with rheumatism and I can hardly walk. I try hard to make an honest living selling fruit and vegetables in a little baby carriage around the streets in New Orleans. But it is now getting dangerous for me to go in the streets because I walk so slow on account of the pains of my rheumatism.”
“I haven’t had paying work in 6 months. My money is all gone. I am 70 years old. I was born in the year of 1862. Will you pleas grant me a old age pinchen... I am deaf and all alone in the world. I wouldn’t ask for pinchen if I could get work. I am well and able to work.”
“I am a Widow Lady no one to depend on I am loosing my home I will have no Where to stay and not able at the Present time to do any Work on account of my health... I have worked hard all my life put all my earnings in a home and now having to give it up and no Where to stay it almost break my heart.”
“Just imagine an old couple poverty striken thru no fault of their own, the man told that he had only four months to live, suffering all that time, no money to go to a hospital, cared for day and night by his old wife, knowing that their last cent must go to pay the doctors and funeral expenses, worrying, saying over and over to her, ‘Oh, my dear, what will become of you?’ Not being able to die in peace, knowing she would be penniless and alone. Now, my dear friend, that is my own experience.”
“I write to ask your assistance in securing an old age pension for my mother. She is helpless, suffering from Sugar Diabetes, which has affected her mind... She is out of funds completely. Her son whom she used to keep house for is in a hospital in Waco, Texas—no compensation for either himself or her. I am a widow: have spent all my savings in caring for her... I appeal to you to place your dear mother in my dear mother’s place—with no money and no place to go unless to the poor house.”
“Mr. Presitdent in Regard to the old [age] pension. I am 68 years old an not able to Work. So 3 doctors said... I appeal to you for a pension of $1.00 per day. I have not got any thing an to old to get a job on Roads or any wheres else an so I ask for a Pension... Mr. Franklin D. Roosevelt Please don’t forget me.”
“Mr. President my father and mother’s home will be taken away from them the first of January if I can’t get up $50.00. My father is 83 years of age and my mother is 64 years of age, and I am all the dependents they have. I am a poor girl my salary is $3.00 per week and I have to feed myself out of that. I just can’t raise it, for my wages is so small - can you help me some — please oh please Mr. President don’t say no.”
“There are thousands of aged women in this great and rich country who are facing poor house or suicide, it is not their fault that they are poor nor that they are too old to work... Now there are a lot of us will choose suicide in preference to being herded into the poorhouse.”
“We are an old couple. My husband 79—I 75... Please help us. We do not have the food that we should not one cent to our name. No income and oh how an aged couple feels, when in former years have had plenty, and to help others... My husband works in his garden far to hard and that is all we have. I say some times, Oh can it be possible.”
FDR ACTS: The Bill Goes To Congress
“Today a hope of many years standing is in large part fulfilled... If the Senate and the House of Representatives in this long and arduous session had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.”Franklin D. Roosevelt, statement on
signing the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935
Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first sitting president to support government-sponsored old-age, unemployment, and health insurance. FDR wanted to enact a national program to address the broad problems of economic insecurity, but he recognized he would face political, economic, and constitutional challenges. The new President chose to delay tackling long-term economic security as he focused on battling the immediate crises of hunger and joblessness.
While Roosevelt delayed, he was pushed to act by his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins. The first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet, Perkins was deeply committed to creating a permanent social safety net for Americans.
Perkins, Frances (1880-1965)
When FDR selected Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor in 1933 he set an important precedent— she was the first woman to serve in a presidential cabinet. Perkins remained in FDR’s cabinet throughout his entire administration and played a pivotal role in framing some of the most enduring social and labor legislation of the New Deal, especially the Social Security Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act.
A graduate of Mount Holyoke College and Columbia University, where she earned a master’s degree in sociology, Perkins worked extensively in settlement house and other social reform work during the Progressive Era. She got her start in government serving on the committee that investigated the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911 and later worked for New York Governor Al Smith. Roosevelt and Perkins enjoyed a close working relationship that dated to FDR’s Governorship years, when she served as New York State’s Industrial Commissioner. Her effectiveness in Washington came, in part, from the strong support she received from the President.
After it was sent to Congress, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins worked to build public support for the Social Security bill. This flyer promoted her February 25, 1935 appearance on a nationwide radio broadcast to discover “Social Insurance for U.S.”
On June 29, 1934, FDR issued an executive order creating
a cabinet level Committee on Economic Security
to prepare legislation for Congress.
FDR selected Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins to lead the Committee on Economic Security. The other members of the committee included Secretary of Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Attorney General Homer Cummings, FERA director Harry Hopkins, and Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace.
Cummings, Homer S. (1870-1956)
Homer S. Cummings was the attorney general during the first half of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration. A lawyer who began practicing in Stamford, Connecticut, Cummings first entered national politics as a Democratic committeeman from Connecticut from 1900 to 1924. In 1932, he rallied support behind FDR for his nomination for the presidency. Cummings was originally chosen to be the governor-general of the Philippines, but after the sudden death of FDR’s first choice for attorney general in March 1933, Cummings was named to the post.
During his tenure as attorney general, Cummings improved the practices and procedures of the federal courts, expanded federal criminal jurisdiction and strengthened the Federal Bureau of Investigation. An advocate for FDR’s New Deal programs, Cummings’s time as attorney general was dominated by the Supreme Court overturning much of that legislation. After the 1936 presidential election, FDR instructed Cummings to draft a proposal which became known as the Court-Packing Plan. He retired in 1939 and entered private practice.
Hopkins, Harry L. (1890-1946)
New Deal administrator, friend and wartime advisor to Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry L. Hopkins was a key player in FDR’s inner circle. Throughout the 1930s, Hopkins headed the key New Deal work relief programs, including the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), the Civil Works Administration (CWA), and the Works Progress Administration (WPA). These positions led him to employ millions of workers, spending billions of dollars at a scale greater than any previous individual in history.
As the Roosevelt administration turned its eyes to war, Hopkins became special assistant to FDR, his closest diplomatic advisor responsible for executing Lend-Lease operations and acting as unofficial emissary to Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin. In declining heath, Hopkins and his young daughter lived at the White House, spending ample time with the President and Mrs. Roosevelt. He died in 1946 following his long battle with stomach cancer.
Morgenthau, Henry, Jr. (1891 – 1967)
Henry Morgenthau, Jr., was a Dutchess County neighbor and close friend to FDR. Morgenthau, only son of New York City real estate mogul and diplomat, Henry Morgenthau, Sr., attended Cornell University, studying agriculture. In 1915, he began his enduring friendship with Roosevelt through their common interests in increasing rural representation in the Democratic Party in opposition to New York City dominance.
In 1928, this relationship led to Morgenthau’s appointments as chairman of the New York State Agricultural Advisory Commission and state Conservation Commissioner in Roosevelt’s administration as governor. Then, as president, FDR first appointed Morgenthau chairman of the Federal Farm Bureau, later the Farm Credit Administrator, and finally, as Secretary of the Treasury, from January 1934 through July 1945. During this tenure Morgenthau played a key role in the design and financing the New Deal program. In the wake of revelations about Hitler’s extermination of European Jews, Morgenthau convinced FDR to create the War Refugee Board in 1944 and proposed the controversial “Morgenthau Plan” to turn postwar Germany into an agrarian state.
Wallace, Henry A. (1888-1965)
As editor of Wallaces’ Farmer, a leading farm journal of the time, Henry A. Wallace was an influential voice for farm relief and tariff reform. In 1933, FDR chose Wallace as his Secretary of Agriculture. Possessing strong administrative and scientific skills, Wallace implemented a host of revolutionary farm programs, including the Agricultural Adjustment Administration, the Soil Conservation Service, the Farm Credit Administration, federal crop insurance, and food stamp and school lunch programs.
In 1940, Roosevelt selected Wallace to be his running mate. One of America’s most effective Vice Presidents, Wallace helped lead the nation’s war mobilization effort and played a key role in planning for the post-war peace. But he was unpopular with many Democratic leaders, who argued he was too idealistic. The 1944 vice presidential nomination went to Harry S Truman. After FDR’s death, Wallace became a leading advocate for post-war cooperation with the Soviet Union and a prominent critic of the Cold War. He ran an unsuccessful third-party campaign for the presidency in 1948. Wallace retired to his beloved farm in upstate New York, where he devoted himself to his first love - scientific farming. He died on November 18, 1965
Aided by teams of experts, the President’s Committee on Economic Security designed a program of old-age pensions funded by payroll taxes on workers and employers. They grappled with thorny problems, including how to provide for Americans who were already old. The Committee recommended a state old age assistance program for them, funded, in part, with federal grants.
Establishing the Committee on Economic Security and the Advisory Council on Economic Security
By virtue of and pursuant to the authority vested in me by the National Industrial Recovery Act (ch. 90, 48 Stat. 195), I hereby establish (1) the Committee on Economic Security (hereinafter referred to as the Committee) consisting of the Secretary of Labor, chairman, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administrator, and (2) the Advisory Council on Economic Security (hereinafter referred to as the Advisory Council), the original members of which shall be appointed by the President and additional members of which may be appointed from time to time by the Committee.
The Committee shall study problems relating to the economic security of individuals and shall report to the President not later than Decemeber 1, 1934, its recommendations concerning proposals which in its judgment will promote greater economic security
The Advisory Council shall assist the Committee in the consideration of all matters coming within the scope of its investigations.
The Committee shall appoint (1) a Techincal Board on Economic Security consisting of qualified representatives selected from various departments and agencies of the Federal Government, and (2) an executive director who shall have immediate charge of studies and investigations to be carried out under the general direction of the Technical Board, and who shall, with the approval of the Technical Board, appoint such additional staff as may be necessary to carry out the provisions of this order.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
The White House
Two days later FDR unveiled the Social
Security program and sent it to Congress.
A Letter from the President's Committee on Economic Security
January 17, 1935
Dear Mr. President:
In your message of June 8, 1934, to the Congress you directed attention to certain fundamental objectives in the great task of reconstruction, an indistinguishable and essential aspect of the immediate task of recovery. You stated, in language that we cannot improve upon:
"Our task of reconstruction does not require the creation of new and strange values. It is rather the finding of the way once more to known, but to some degree forgotten, ideals and values. If the means and details are in some instances new, the objectives are as permanent as human nature.
"Among our objectives I place the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation first.
"This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours.
Subsequent to this message, you created, by Executive Order, this Committee on Economic Security to make recommendations to you on the third of the aspects of security which you outlined-that of safeguards "against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours."
In the brief time that has intervened, we have sought to analyze the hazards against which special measures of security are necessary, and have tried to bring to bear upon them the world experience with measures designed as safeguards against these hazards. We have analyzed all proposed safeguards of this kind which have received serious consideration in this country. On the basis of all these considerations, we have tried to formulate a program which will represent at least a substantial beginning toward the realization of the objective you presented.
We have had in our employ a small staff which included some of the outstanding experts in this field. This staff has prepared many valuable studies giving the factual background, summarizing American and foreign experience, presenting actuarial calculations, and making detailed suggestions for legislation and administration.
We have also had the assistance of the Technical Board on Economic Security, provided for in your Executive Order, and composed Of 20 people in the Government service, who have special interest and knowledge in some or all aspects of the problem you directed us to study. The Technical Board, functioning as a group, through subcommittees, and as individuals, has aided the staff and the Committee during the entire investigation. Many of the members have devoted much time to this work and have made very important contributions. Plus these, many other people in the Government service have unstintingly aided the Committee in special problems on which their advice and assistance have been sought.
The Advisory Council on Economic Security, appointed by you and constituted of citizens outside of the Government service, chosen from employers, employees, and the general public, has assisted the Committee in weighing the proposals developed by the staff and the Technical Board, and in arriving at a judgment as to their practicability. All members of the Council were people who have important private responsibilities, and many of them also other public duties, but they took time to come to Washington on four separate occasions for meetings extending over several days.
In addition to the Council, this Committee found it advisable to create seven other advisory groups: A committee of actuarial consultants, a medical advisory board, a dental advisory committee., a hospital advisory committee, a public health advisory committee., a child welfare committee., and an advisory committee on employment and relief. All of these committees have contributed suggestions which have been incorporated in this report. The medical advisory board., the dental advisory committee, and the hospital advisory committee are still continuing their consideration of health insurance, but have joined with the public health advisory committee in endorsement of the program for extended public health services which we recommend.
Finally, many hundreds of citizens and organizations in all parts of the country have contributed ideas and suggestions. Three hundred interested citizens, representing practically every State, at their own expense, attended the National Conference on Economic Security, held in Washington on November 14, which was productive of many very good suggestions.
The responsibility for the recommendations we offer is our own. As was inevitable in view of the wide differences of opinion which prevail regarding the best methods of providing protection against the hazards leading to destitution and dependency, we could not accept all of the advice and suggestions offered, but it was distinctly helpful to have all points of view presented and considered.
To all who assisted us or offered suggestions, we are deeply grateful.
In this report we briefly sketch the need for additional safeguards against "the major hazards and vicissitudes of life." We also present recommendations for making a beginning in the development of safeguards against these hazards, and with this report submit drafts of bills to give effect to these recommendations. We realize that some of the measures we recommend are experimental and, like nearly all pioneering legislation, will, in course of time, have to be extended and modified. They represent, however, our best judgment as to the steps which ought to be taken immediately toward the realization of what you termed in
your recent message to the Congress "the ambition of the individual to obtain for him and his a proper security, a reasonable leisure, and a decent living throughout life."
Frances E. Perkins
Secretary of Labor (Chairman)
H. Morgenthau, Jr.
Secretary of the Treasury
H. A. Wallace
Secretary of Agriculture
Federal Emergency Relief Administrator
FDR devoted part of his April 28, 1935 Fireside Chat to the importance of passing social security. Roosevelt reserved his fireside chats for key messages he wanted to deliver directly to the public.
Franklin D. Roosevelt
Since my annual message to the Congress on January fourth, last, I have not addressed the general public over the air. In the many weeks since that time the Congress has devoted itself to the arduous task of formulating legislation necessary to the country's welfare. It has made and is making distinct progress.
Before I come to any of the specific measures, however, I want to leave in your minds one clear fact. The Administration and the Congress are not proceeding in any haphazard fashion in this task of government. Each of our steps has a definite relationship to every other step. The job of creating a program for the Nation's welfare is, in some respects, like the building of a ship. At different points on the coast where I often visit they build great seagoing ships. When one of these ships is under construction and the steel frames have been set in the keel, it is difficult for a person who does not know ships to tell how it will finally look when it is sailing the high seas.
It may seem confused to some, but out of the multitude of detailed parts that go into the making of the structure the creation of a useful instrument for man ultimately comes. It is that way with the making of a national policy. The objective of the Nation has greatly changed in three years. Before that time individual self-interest and group selfishness were paramount in public thinking. The general good was at a discount. Three years of hard thinking have changed the picture. More and more people, because of clearer thinking and a better understanding, are considering the whole rather than a mere part relating to one section or to one crop, or to one industry, or to an individual private occupation. That is a tremendous gain for the principles of democracy. The overwhelming majority of people in this country know how to sift the wheat from the chaff in what they hear and what they read. They know that the process of the constructive rebuilding of America cannot be done in a day or a year, but that it is being done in spite of the few who seek to confuse them and to profit by their confusion. Americans as a whole are feeling a lot better -- a lot more cheerful than for many, many years.
The most difficult place in the world to get a clear open perspective of the country as a whole is Washington. I am reminded sometimes of what President Wilson once said: " So many people come to Washington who know things that are not so, and so few people who know anything about what the people of the United States are thinking about." That is why I occasionally leave this scene of action for a few days to go fishing or back home to Hyde Park, so that I can have a chance to think quietly about the country as a whole. "To get away from the trees", as they say, "and to look at the whole forest. " This duty of seeing the country in a long-range perspective is one which, in a very special manner, attaches to this office to which you have chosen me. Did you ever stop to think that there are, after all, only two positions in the Nation that are filled by the vote of all of the voters -- the President and the Vice-President? That makes it particularly necessary for the Vice-President and for me to conceive of our duty toward the entire country. I speak, therefore, tonight, to and of the American people as a whole.
My most immediate concern is in carrying out the purposes of the great work program just enacted by the Congress. Its first objective is to put men and women now on the relief rolls to work and, incidentally, to assist materially in our already unmistakable march toward recovery. I shall not confuse my discussion by a multitude of figures. So many figures are quoted to prove so many things. Sometimes it depends upon what paper you read and what broadcast you hear. Therefore, let us keep our minds on two or three simple, essential facts in connection with this problem of unemployment. It is true that while business and industry are definitely better our relief rolls are still too large. However, for the first time in five years the relief rolls have declined instead of increased during the winter months. They are still declining. The simple fact is that many million more people have private work today than two years ago today or one year ago today, and every day that passes offers more chances to work for those who want to work. In spite of the fact that unemployment remains a serious problem here as in every other nation, we have come to recognize the possibility and the necessity of certain helpful remedial measures. These measures are of two kinds. The first is to make provisions intended to relieve, to minimize, and to prevent future unemployment; the second is to establish the practical means to help those who are unemployed in this present emergency. Our social security legislation is an attempt to answer the first of these questions. Our work relief program the second.
The program for social security now pending before the Congress is a necessary part of the future unemployment policy of the government. While our present and projected expenditures for work relief are wholly within the reasonable limits of our national credit resources, it is obvious that we cannot continue to create governmental deficits for that purpose year after year. We must begin now to make provision for the future. That is why our social security program is an important part of the complete picture. It proposes, by means of old age pensions, to help those who have reached the age of retirement to give up their jobs and thus give to the younger generation greater opportunities for work and to give to all a feeling of security as they look toward old age.
The unemployment insurance part of the legislation will not only help to guard the individual in future periods of lay-off against dependence upon relief, but it will, by sustaining purchasing power, cushion the shock of economic distress. Another helpful feature of unemployment insurance is the incentive it will give to employers to plan more carefully in order that unemployment may be prevented by the stabilizing of employment itself.
Provisions for social security, however, are protections for the future. Our responsibility for the immediate necessities of the unemployed has been met by the Congress through the most comprehensive work plan in the history of the Nation. Our problem is to put to work three and one-half million employable persons now on the relief rolls. It is a problem quite as much for private industry as for the government.
We are losing no time getting the government's vast work relief program underway, and we have every reason to believe that it should be in full swing by autumn. In directing it, I shall recognize six fundamental principles:
(1) The projects should be useful.
(2) Projects shall be of a nature that a considerable proportion of the money spent will go into wages for labor.
(3) Projects which promise ultimate return to the Federal Treasury of a considerable proportion of the costs will be sought.
(4) Funds allotted for each project should be actually and promptly spent and not held over until later years.
(5) In all cases projects must be of a character to give employment to those on the relief rolls.
(6) Projects will be allocated to localities or relief areas in relation to the number of workers on relief rolls in those areas.
I next want to make it clear exactly how we shall direct the work.
(1) I have set up a Division of Applications and Information to which all proposals for the expenditure of money must go for preliminary study and consideration.
(2) After the Division of Applications and Information has sifted those projects, they will be sent to an Allotment Division composed of representatives of the more important governmental agencies charged with carrying on work relief projects. The group will also include representatives of cities, and of labor, farming, banking and industry. This Allotment Division will consider all of the recommendations submitted to it and such projects as they approve will be next submitted to the President who under the Act is required to make final allocations.
(3) The next step will be to notify the proper government agency in whose field the project falls, and also to notify another agency which I am creating -- a Progress Division. This Division will have the duty of coordinating the purchases of materials and supplies and of making certain that people who are employed will be taken from the relief rolls. It will also have the responsibility of determining work payments in various localities, of making full use of existing employment services and to assist people engaged in relief work to move as rapidly as possible back into private employment when such employment is available. Moreover, this Division will be charged with keeping projects moving on schedule.
(4) I have felt it to be essentially wise and prudent to avoid, so far as possible, the creation of new governmental machinery for supervising this work. The National Government now has at least sixty different agencies with the staff and the experience and the competence necessary to carry on the two hundred and fifty or three hundred kinds of work that will be undertaken. These agencies, therefore, will simply be doing on a somewhat enlarged scale the same sort of things that they have been doing. This will make certain that the largest possible portion of the funds allotted will be spent for actually creating new work and not for building up expensive overhead organizations here in Washington.
For many months preparations have been under way. The allotment of funds for desirable projects has already begun. The key men for the major responsibilities of this great task already have been selected. I well realize that the country is expecting before this year is out to see the "dirt fly", as they say, in carrying on the work, and I assure my fellow citizens that no energy will be spared in using these funds effectively to make a major attack upon the problem of unemployment.
Our responsibility is to all of the people in this country. This is a great national crusade to destroy enforced idleness which is an enemy of the human spirit generated by this depression. Our attack upon these enemies must be without stint and without discrimination. No sectional, no political distinctions can be permitted. It must, however, be recognized that when an enterprise of this character is extended over more than three thousand counties throughout the Nation, there may be occasional instances of inefficiency, bad management, or misuse of funds. When cases of this kind occur, there will be those, of course, who will try to tell you that the exceptional failure is characteristic of the entire endeavor. It should be remembered that in every big job there are some imperfections. There are chiselers in every walk of life; there are those in every industry who are guilty of unfair practices, every profession has its black sheep, but long experience in government has taught me that the exceptional instances of wrong-doing in government are probably less numerous than in almost every other line of endeavor. The most effective means of preventing such evils in this work relief program will be the eternal vigilance of the American people themselves. I call upon my fellow citizens everywhere to cooperate with me in making this the most efficient and the cleanest example of public enterprise the world has ever seen. It is time to provide a smashing answer for those cynical men who say that a democracy cannot be honest and efficient. If you will help, this can be done. I, therefore, hope you will watch the work in every corner of this Nation. Feel free to criticize. Tell me of instances where work can be done better, or where improper practices prevail. Neither you nor I want criticism conceived in a purely fault-finding or partisan spirit, but I am jealous of the right of every citizen to call to the attention of his or her government examples of how the public money can be more effectively spent for the benefit of the American people. I now come, my friends, to a part of the remaining business before the Congress. It has under consideration many measures which provide for the rounding out of the program of economic and social reconstruction with which we have been concerned for two years. I can mention only a few of them tonight, but I do not want my mention of specific measures to be interpreted as lack of interest in or disapproval of many other important proposals that are pending.
The National Industrial Recovery Act expires on the sixteenth of June. After careful consideration, I have asked the Congress to extend the life of this useful agency of government. As we have proceeded with the administration of this Act, we have found from time to time more and more useful ways of promoting its purposes. No reasonable person wants to abandon our present gains -- we must continue to protect children, to enforce minimum wages, to prevent excessive hours, to safeguard, define and enforce collective bargaining, and, while retaining fair competition, to eliminate so far as humanly possible, the kinds of unfair practices by selfish minorities which unfortunately did more than anything else to bring about the recent collapse of industries. There is likewise pending before the Congress legislation to provide for the elimination of unnecessary holding companies in the public utility field.
I consider this legislation a positive recovery measure. Power production in this country is virtually back to the 1929 peak. The operating companies in the gas and electric utility field are by and large in good condition. But under holding company domination the utility industry has long been hopelessly at war within itself and with public sentiment. By far the greater part of the general decline in utility securities had occurred before I was inaugurated. The absentee management of unnecessary holding company control has lost touch with and has lost the sympathy of the communities it pretends to serve. Even more significantly, it has given the country as a whole an uneasy apprehension of over concentrated economic power.
A business that loses the confidence of its customers and the good will of the public cannot long continue to be a good risk for the investor. This legislation will serve the investor by ending the conditions which have caused that lack of confidence and good will. It will put the public utility operating industry on a sound basis for the future, both in its public relations and in its internal relations.
This legislation will not only in the long run result in providing lower electric and gas rates to the consumer, but it will protect the actual value and earning power of properties now owned by thousands of investors who have little protection under the old laws against what used to be called frenzied finance. It will not destroy values.
Not only business recovery, but the general economic recovery of the Nation will be greatly stimulated by the enactment of legislation designed to improve the status of our transportation agencies. There is need for legislation providing for the regulation of interstate transportation by buses and trucks, to regulate transportation by water, new provisions for strengthening our Merchant Marine and air transport, measures for the strengthening of the Interstate Commerce Commission to enable it to carry out a rounded conception of the national transportation system in which the benefits of private ownership are retained, while the public stake in these important services is protected by the public's government.
Finally, the reestablishment of public confidence in the banks of the Nation is one of the most hopeful results of our efforts as a Nation to reestablish public confidence in private banking. We all know that private banking actually exists by virtue of the permission of and regulation by the people as a whole, speaking through their government. Wise public policy, however, requires not only that banking be safe but that its resources be most fully utilized, in the economic life of the country. To this end it was decided more than twenty years ago that the government should assume the responsibility of providing a means by which the credit of the Nation might be controlled, not by a few private banking institutions, but by a body with public prestige and authority. The answer to this demand was the Federal Reserve System. Twenty years of experience with this system have justified the efforts made to create it, but these twenty years have shown by experience definite possibilities for improvement. Certain proposals made to amend the Federal Reserve Act deserve prompt and favorable action by the Congress. They are a minimum of wise readjustment of our Federal Reserve system in the light of past experience and present needs.
These measures I have mentioned are, in large part, the program which under my constitutional duty I have recommended to the Congress. They are essential factors in a rounded program for national recovery. They contemplate the enrichment of our national life by a sound and rational ordering of its various elements and wise provisions for the protection of the weak against the strong. Never since my inauguration in March, 1933, have I felt so unmistakably the atmosphere of recovery. But it is more than the recovery of the material basis of our individual lives. It is the recovery of confidence in our democratic processes and institutions. We have survived all of the arduous burdens and the threatening dangers of a great economic calamity. We have in the darkest moments of our national trials retained our faith in our own ability to master our destiny. Fear is vanishing and confidence is growing on every side, renewed faith in the vast possibilities of human beings to improve their material and spiritual status through the instrumentality of the democratic form of government. That faith is receiving its just reward. For that we can be thankful to the God who watches over America.
Facing concerns about state’s rights and potential constitutional challenges, the Committee made unemployment insurance a joint federal-state responsibility, despite objections that this would lead to widely varying benefits in different states. The insurance benefits would be funded by a payroll tax on employers.
Though Democrats had a nearly 3 to 1 majority in the House and Senate, Congressional passage was not swift or easy. Congress made significant changes. Most importantly, it dropped many large labor categories, including farm and domestic workers. In the House some favored more radical proposals like the Townsend Plan. In the Senate, the bill’s supporters fought an effort to let businesses with pension plans opt out of Social Security. A Senate-House committee worked out differences between the two versions of the bill and, in early August, Congress sent the Social Security Act to the President.
“We can never insure one hundred percentFranklin Roosevelt's Statement on Signing
of the population against one hundred percent
of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have
tried to frame a law which will give some
measure of protection to the average citizen and
to his family against the loss of a job and
against poverty-ridden old age.”
the Social Security Act August 14, 1935
On August 14, 1935 legislators and advisors crowded into the White House Cabinet Room to witness the signing of the Social Security Act. News photographers and film crews recorded the moment for history as FDR put his signature on the bill. Standing directly behind the President was the person most responsible for it—Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.
Statement on Signing the Social Security Act.
August 14, 1935
Today a hope of many years' standing is in large part fulfilled. 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. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last.
This social security measure gives at least some protection to thirty millions of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health.
We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.
This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete. It is a structure intended to lessen the force of possible future depressions. It will act as a protection to future Administrations against the necessity of going deeply into debt to furnish relief to the needy. The law will flatten out the peaks and valleys of deflation and of inflation. It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide for the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness.
I congratulate all of you ladies and gentlemen, all of you in the Congress, in the executive departments and all of you who come from private life, and I thank you for your splendid efforts in behalf of this sound, needed and patriotic legislation.
If the Senate and the House of Representatives in this long and arduous session had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time.
Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont was the first person to receive an old-age monthly benefit check.
Early years of Social Security people purchased and carried commercially produced metal s.s. cards like this. None were recognized by the government.
Early years of Social Security people purchased and carried commercially produced metal s.s. cards like this. None were recognized by the government.
“Today many of our citizens are still excludedFranklin D. Roosevelt August 15, 1938
from old-age insurance and unemployment
compensation because of the nature of their
employment. This must be set aright; and it will be.
Social Security instantly became America’s biggest social program. Yet, ironically, a program that today is deemed too large to keep its promises was criticized in 1935 for being too small.
Initial Social Security benefits were much lower than today and the program covered only 60% of workers. Vast groups - most significantly millions of farm and domestic workers - were excluded. Because Hispanic and African Americans filled a large percentage of these jobs, they were disproportionately affected. The system also reflected traditional views of family life. Many job categories dominated by women were not covered. Women generally qualified for insurance through their husbands or children.
Soon after its enactment, FDR began working to expand Social Security. Congress ignored his calls to open coverage to farm and domestic workers and other excluded groups.
Through 1939, the importance of adding national health insurance to the social safety net continued to be debated across the country and in Congress. In January, FDR summed up the current views of his administration in a speech that proposed a National Health Program. It would be funded through federal grants to the states.
January 23, 1939
In my annual message to the Congress I referred to problems of health security. I take occasion now to bring this subject specifically to your attention in transmitting the report and recommendations on national health prepared by the Interdepartmental Committee to Coordinate Health and Welfare Activities.
The health of the people is a public concern; ill health is a major cause of suffering, economic loss, and dependency; good health is essential to the security and progress of the Nation.
Health needs were studied by the Committee on Economic Security which I appointed in 1934 and certain basic steps were taken by the Congress in the Social Security Act. It was recognized at that time that a comprehensive health program was required as an essential link in our national defenses against individual and social insecurity. Further study, however, seemed necessary at that time to determine ways and means of providing this protection most effectively.
In August, 1935, after the passage of the Social Security Act, I appointed the Interdepartmental Committee to Coordinate Health and Welfare Activities. Early in 1938, this committee forwarded to me reports prepared by its technical experts. They had reviewed unmet health needs, pointing to the desirability of a national health program, and they submitted the outlines of such a program. These reports were impressive. I therefore suggested that a conference be held to bring the findings before representatives of the general public and of the medical, public health, and allied professions.
More than 200 men and women, representing many walks of life and many parts of our country, came together in Washington last July
to consider the technical committee's findings and recommendations and to offer further proposals. There was agreement on two basic points: The existence of serious unmet needs for medical service; and our failure to make full application of the growing powers of medical science to prevent or control disease and disability.
I have been concerned by the evidence of inequalities that exist among the States as to personnel and facilities for health services. There are equally serious inequalities of resources, medical facilities and services in different sections and among different economic groups. These inequalities create handicaps for the parts of our country and the groups of our people which most sorely need the benefits of modern medical science.
The objective of a national health program is to make available in all parts of our country and for all groups of our people the scientific knowledge and skill at our command to prevent and care for sickness and disability; to safeguard mothers, infants and children; and to offset through social insurance the loss of earnings among workers who are temporarily or permanently disabled.
The committee does not propose a great expansion of Federal health services. It recommends that plans be worked out and administered by States and localities with the assistance of Federal grants-in-aid. The aim is a flexible program. The committee points out that while the eventual costs of the proposed program would be considerable, they represent a sound investment which can be expected to wipe out, in the long run, certain costs now borne in the form of relief.
We have reason to derive great satisfaction from the increase in the average length of life in our country and from the improvement in the average levels of health and well-being. Yet these improvements in the averages are cold comfort to the millions of our people whose security in health and survival is still as limited as was that of the Nation as a whole fifty years ago.
The average level of health or the average cost of sickness has little meaning for those who now must meet personal catastrophes. To know that a stream is four feet deep on the average is of little help to those who drown in the places where it is ten feet deep. The recommendations of the committee offer a program to bridge that stream by reducing the risks of needless suffering and death, and of costs and dependency, that now overwhelm millions of individual families and sap the resources of the Nation.
I recommend the report of the Interdepartmental Committee for careful study by the Congress. The essence of the program recommended by the Committee is Federal-State cooperation. Federal legislation necessarily precedes, for it indicates the assistance which may be made available to the States in a cooperative program for the Nation's health.
The bill, to be administered by the states, would have made health insurance compulsory for almost all employees and their dependents nationwide. After hearings between April and July, the bill died in committee.
On August 11, 1939, FDR signed amendments to Social Security that added benefits for the spouse and minor children of retired workers. In these amendments, Congress also provided survivor benefits to family members in the case of the premature death of a worker. However, Congress also moved the start date for Social Security benefits from 1942 to 1940 and postponed scheduled increases in Social Security tax rates. These actions decreased the size of the reserve fund and took the program off the funding path FDR had charted. Seeds of future fiscal problems had been planted.
A Transcript of the Presidential statement on signing some Amendments to the Social Security Act, August 11, 1939.
IT WILL be exactly four years ago on the fourteenth day of this month that I signed the original Social Security Act. As I indicated at that time and on various occasions since that time, we must expect a great program of social legislation, such as is represented in the Social Security Act, to be improved and strengthened in the light of additional experience and understanding. These amendments to the Act represent another tremendous step forward in providing greater security for the people of this country. This is especially true in the case of the federal old age insurance system which has now been converted into a system of old age and survivors' insurance providing life-time family security instead of only individual old age security to the workers in insured occupations. In addition to the worker himself, millions of widows and orphans will now be afforded some degree of protection in the event of his death whether before or after his retirement.
The size of the benefits to be paid during the early years will be far more adequate than under the present law. However, a reasonable relationship is retained between wage loss sustained and benefits received. This is a most important distinguishing characteristic of social insurance as contrasted with any system of flat pensions.
Payment of old age benefits will begin on January 1, 1940, instead of January 1, 1942. Increase in pay-roll taxes, scheduled to take place in January, 1940, is deferred. Benefit payments in the early years are substantially increased.
I am glad that the insurance benefits have been extended to cover workers in some occupations that have previously not been covered. However, workers in other occupations have been excluded. In my opinion, it is imperative that these insurance benefits be extended to workers in all occupations.
The Federal-State system of providing assistance to the needy aged, the needy blind, and dependent children, has also been strengthened by increasing the federal aid. I am particularly gratified that the Federal matching ratio to States for aid to dependent children has been increased from one-third to one-half of the aid granted. I am also happy that greater Federal contributions will be made for public health, maternal and child welfare, crippled children, and vocational rehabilitation. These changes will make still more effective the Federal-State cooperative relationship upon which the Social Security Act is based and which constitutes its great strength. It is important to note in this connection that the increased assistance the States will now be able to give will continue to be furnished on the basis of individual need, thus affording the greatest degree of protection within reasonable financial bounds.
As regards administration, probably the most important change that has been made is to require that State agencies administering any part of the Social Security Act coming within the jurisdiction of the Social Security Board and the Children's Bureau shall set up a merit system for their employees. An essential element of any merit system is that employees shall be selected on a non-political basis and shall function on a non-political basis.
In 1934 I appointed a committee called the Committee on Economic Security made up of Government officials to study the whole problem of economic and social security and to develop a legislative program for the same. The present law is the result of its deliberations. That committee is still in existence and has considered and recommended the present amendments. In order to give reality and coordination to the study of any further developments that appear necessary I am asking the committee to continue its life and to make active study of various proposals which may be made for amendments or developments to the Social Security Act.
Millions of new people came into the system. Two years later, lawmakers added a disability insurance program to Social Security. It provided cash benefits to disabled workers aged 50-65 and disabled adult children. Over the next few years, Congress broadened the scope of the program, permitting the dependents of disabled workers to qualify for benefits. Eventually, disabled workers at any age could qualify.
But strong opposition from the medical profession led him to back down. Roosevelt’s wish was partially fulfilled in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson signed the Medicare Act. Under Medicare, health coverage was extended to Social Security beneficiaries age 65 or older (and eventually to those receiving disability benefits). The Social Security Administration continued to have responsibility for the Medicare program until 1977, when a new federal agency was created to oversee the program.
National Medicare Enrollment Month
By the President of the United States of America
March 6, 1966
NATIONAL MEDICARE ENROLLMENT MONTH, 1966
By the President of the United States of America
WHEREAS Medicare promises a dramatic step toward a better life for all older Americans through a dual program of hospital insurance and voluntary medical insurance;
WHEREAS The Social Security Amendments of 1965 provide a deadline of March 31, 1966, for enrollment in the voluntary medical insurance portion of the program for Americans who reached 65 in 1965 or before;
WHEREAS our older citizens are richly deserving of these benefits, and should not be deprived of this valuable protection for any time through neglect or oversight;
NOW, THEREFORE, I, LYNDON B. JOHNSON, President of the United States, do hereby proclaim the month of March 1966 as National Medicare Enrollment Month, and I invite the Governors of the States, the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and all other areas subject to the jurisdiction of the United States to issue similar proclamations.
I URGE and direct all offices and agencies of the Executive Department to assist the Social Security Administration to give every eligible American an opportunity to sign up for this protection before time runs out.
AND I URGE every American citizen to lend his time and energy to this cause: to encourage every older friend and relative to make his choice while time remains, so that he may enjoy this protection, provided by a grateful Nation.
IN WITNESS WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States of America to be affixed.
Done at the City of Washington this sixth day of March, in the year of our Lord ninteen hundred and sixty-six, and of the Independence of the United States of America the one hundred and ninetieth.
By the President:
LYNDON B . JOHNSON
Secretary of State.
Critics and Defenders
“If this bill becomes law, the lashRep. Daniel Reed (R-NY)
of the dictator will be felt.”
April 17, 1935
Critics argued the government reserve fund established to hold Social Security contributions inevitably would be raided by the government for other purposes. Others worried about the effect of Social Security payroll taxes on an economy still mired in economic depression. Some young Americans worried there would be no money available in 30-40 years.
Though the Act had passed with bi-partisan support, during the 1936 election campaign, Republican presidential candidate Alfred Landon of Kansas criticized Social Security as “unjust, unworkable, stupidly drafted, and wastefully financed.”
Republicans challenged its economic viability and claimed the government reserve fund established to hold Social Security contributions was “no reserve at all, because the fund will contain nothing but the government’s promise to pay, while the taxes collected in the guise of premiums will be wasted in reckless and extravagant political schemes.”
Some critics—particularly newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst—charged Social Security participants would be required to wear identification dog tags.
During the 1936 election campaign, Republican presidential candidate Alfred Landon called for repeal of the Social Security Act. Landon believed unemployment insurance should be left to the states and that old-age pensions should be provided in the traditional manner, as state welfare programs for the needy. This is the cover of a flier criticizing the Act that was circulated by the Republican National Committee during the campaign.
FDR’s landslide re-election victory in November 1936 ended the immediate political threat to Social Security. But a constitutional challenge in the courts was only resolved when the Supreme Court upheld the Act in two separate decisions on May 24, 1937.
But it is also controversial. In recent years, its long-term financial viability has been debated, with critics echoing complaints first raised during the 1930s. Social Security’s critics complain that Congress uses the money from the Social Security Trust Funds for other purposes, while the program’s defenders argue that the Trust Funds hold real assets. Critics think the program needs to be replaced or dramatically changed. Defenders maintain that the system’s solvency can be assured with shared economic sacrifice.
At that point, Social Security will continue. But it will be supported
largely through payroll taxes—without the benefit of the Trust Funds—and income will be sufficient to pay only about 78 percent of
promised future benefits.
*This date is based on an estimate made by the Social Security Administration in 2010. This estimate is revised every year.
Ultimately, the question today is the same one
the nation has faced since 1935.
Share your answer!
Take our quiz and see how well you know SSA.
Take the Quiz!
Play our SSA Poster Memory Game.