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–by Joanna Hallac

Today marks the anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1935, thus establishing the senior citizen pension or “entitlement” that still exists today. It is a pension system that still sparks debate to this day and is considered—along with the other two, large entitlement programs of Medicare and Medicaid—to be the “third rail” in politics for anyone brave enough (or some might argue stupid enough) to delve into the issue of reforming the program. Regardless of the politics of the program and how people on both sides of the aisle feel about it, there is no question that it began the U.S. government’s foray into the business of providing a social safety net for those Americans still deeply suffering from the Great Depression and continues to do so today.

Back in January 1935, as the 74th Congress was beginning their session, FDR sent a request to Capitol Hill for members to introduce his “Economic Security Bill” in each chamber. The same day, January 17th, Senator Robert Wagner (NY) and Rep. David Lewis (MD) introduced the president’s bill in their respective chambers. After referral to committee—House Ways and Means and Senate Finance—the bill would be renamed the “Social Security Act of 1935” while being debated within the Ways and Means Committee. After some time, the House reported the bill out of committee in April and the Senate did so in May, thus beginning floor debate on the bill in each chamber. The debate would rage on for several months, as opponents felt it was an over-intrusion of the federal government into the private sector, since the pensions would be funded by taxing workers’ earnings and putting their contributions into one large fund that would be used to pay out the money to those eligible citizens when they reached the age of 65.

Despite the opposition, due to the dire state of the economy and the way people’s savings had disappeared overnight as a result of the 1929 Stock Market crash and subsequent Great Depression, most people were in favor of having the federal government do more to ensure that Americans, especially those who had worked and saved money their whole lives, were adequately protected and taken care of, and so the bill—which was reconciled in conference committee—passed by a voice vote in the House on August 8th and the Senate on August 9th. FDR received the bill and signed it into law on August 14, 1935, forever changing the role of the federal government in the lives of Americans.

Since we like to deal more in history than in politics here, we will leave the political discussions surrounding Social Security and our other “entitlement” programs for other blogs and media outlets; however, there is no denying the impact that the passage and signing of this bill into law has had upon our country, regardless of whether you think it was a good or bad thing. One interesting thing to note is that the true genius of FDR and his plan as regards Social Security in particular is that he set the age at which citizens would begin to receive these benefits at 65 when life expectancy for American adults in 1935 was, on average, age 63. That FDR was a pretty crafty politician if you ask me. 

Sources consulted:

Social Security Administration Website