Social Security at 50

By Leiby, James | Public Welfare, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Social Security at 50


Leiby, James, Public Welfare


In its fiftieth year, the Social Security Act is a subject of controversy. Many people argue that its objectives are confused: its public assistance programs do not properly assist and its social insurances do not properly insure. Conservatives, liberals, and radicals offer critiques and proposals to make the system more equitable, adequate, efficient, and solvent. The argument is about particular policies and decisions in the legislation and administration of the act: how and why they fall short, how to correct them. Experts formulate their critiques and proposals in the context of our present discontents and debates about what to do next. Meanwhile, the understanding of the act fades, along with a sense of how far we have come and in what direction. The anniversary is a good time to remind ourselves of how the act took form and how the problems and aspirations of that time compare with our interests today.

The act was a great departure from earlier ideas and practices. It established a public old-age retirement program that had no precedent in the United States; an unemployment insurance program that had one state-legislated precedent, much disputed; three "categorical" public assistance programs (for the aged, dependent children, and the blind) that had many precedents in state legislation, although they were feeble; and programs for public health and child welfare that did have helpful precedents. The new income maintenance programs touched more people in more personal ways than any previous federal program. The social insurances covered most people who received wages or salaries and many who were self-employed. The special public assistances aided large numbers of needy people who had been excluded from earlier programs. The act brought something new, important, and enduring into American life.

We can be misled by the congressional majorities that finally approved the legislation and by the stability of the programs and the administration through the years. The initial debate over "social security" brought out doubts and fears that surfaced again and again in attacks on the policy and its administration. Arthur Altmeyer, who was a central actor in both the legislation and its implementation, believed that the principles of 1935, as we might call them, were in doubt until 1954. Then followed twenty years of relative acceptance, then increasing skepticism and doubt as politicians and technical experts debated changes in the system. Old issues and arguments now come back to haunt the front page and the cover story. The people who most influenced the decisions of 1935 were then between forty and fifty years old, now they are almost all gone. A younger generation that entered the new bureaucracies early and grew up with them is rapidly passing from the scene. Seven out of ten Americans alive today were born after 1935; time inexorably erases or distorts the memory of the act's origin.

The Depression and Relief

What disappears first is the historical consciousness of the people who lived in the 1930s. Suppose Franklin Roosevelt and the two cabinet members who were most influential in his thinking about social security were to have looked back fifty years to 1885. What sense would they have made out of the events of that half century, and how would it have colored their thinking about social security? Roosevelt was three years old in 1885; so was Frances Perkins, his secretary of labor; Harry Hopkins, the federal relief administrator, who would in later years be Roosevelt's alter ego, was born in 1890.

To people of that time, the Social Security Act was one of several responses to the economic depression that followed the stock market crash of 1929. Specifically, it was a response to the problem of unemployment relief in the depression. Like other responses, it rested in part on ideas about events and trends in the previous fifty years.

The severity of the stock market crash and the depression came as a great surprise to the experts. …

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