From the Roosevelt Library and Museum exhibition:
The crown jewel of FDR’s New Deal, Social Security is his greatest legacy to the nation. Historians concur on its singular importance. “No other New Deal measure proved more lastingly consequential or more emblematic of the very meaning of the New Deal,” notes Stanford historian David M. Kennedy. Roosevelt would have agreed. “He always regarded the Social Security Act as the cornerstone of his administration,” Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins recalled, “and . . . took greater satisfaction from it than from anything else he achieved on the domestic front.”
I come from a union family and I'm a graduate of Roosevelt High School, in Yonkers NY. When I was growing up, Social Security was already an accepted part of American life, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was acknowledged as our greatest President, and no one in my family nor my neighbors nor my classmates could ever imagine his legacy would be threatened the way it is today. But that's not the way it was when the program got started.
Social insurance, as conceived by President Roosevelt, would address the permanent problem of economic security for the elderly by creating a work-related, contributory system in which workers would provide for their own future economic security through taxes paid while employed. Thus it was an alternative both to reliance on welfare and to radical changes in our capitalist system. In the context of its time, it can be seen as a moderately conservative, yet activist, response to the challenges of the Depression...The link above is from a brief on line history that can be found at the Social Security Administration, and do click that "various forms of medical care" link. In fact, I'll show it to you as a reminder of the human need that pushed for the passage of Social Security in the first place.Social Security Administration graph of Depression years
The Social Security Act did not quite achieve all the aspirations its supporters had hoped by way of providing a "comprehensive package of protection" against the "hazards and vicissitudes of life." Certain features of that package, notably disability coverage and medical benefits, would have to await future developments. But it did provide a wide range of programs to meet the nation's needs. In addition to the program we know think of as Social Security,it included unemployment insurance, old-age assistance, aid to dependent children and grants to the states to provide various forms of medical care.In this photo from shortly after passage of the Social Security Act of 1935,
a Visiting Nurse brings health care services to a poor rural family.
National Archives photo.
One of the fascinating things to contemplate is the now-forgotten antecedents of Social Security, including more radical programs pushed by people like Upton Sinclair (the End Poverty in California plan):
Sinclair's EPIC scheme was a 12-point program to remake the Californian economy. It involved the issuance of scrip currency, the creation of large state-run bartering enterprises, a tax on idle land and floating a large state bond for $300 million. Point 10 of the plan was a proposal to give pensions of $50 a month to all needy persons over 60 who had lived in California for at least three years. There was a state pension plan in operation in California at the time, but its benefits were very low, and the eligibility requirements were so severe that most elderly Californians could not qualify. (This was true of many of the state pension programs around the country.) Sinclair's pension proposal was very popular because in one fell swoop it reduced the minimum age for pensions by 10 years, almost doubled their value, and eliminated restrictive eligibility requirements.
Huey Long (Every Man a King), the eponymous Townsend and Bigelow plan creators, the General Welfare Federation of America and the Technocracy movement were other pension plans of that era. Sinclair, an avowed Socialist, nearly got himself elected Governor of California in 1936.
When the votes were counted, Upton Sinclair got 37% of the vote, the Republican candidate got 48% and a third-party progressive candidate took another 13%. Had it been a two-man race, Upton Sinclair might have become Governor of California and the EPIC pension plan might well have become the California model.And if you wonder why I hold third parties and primary challenges at arm's length, there's more than 2000 to ruminate on.
They are all summarized here, but imagine today's era and the push for single payer behind Washington's passage of the Affordable Care Act. There were unhappy people in the 30's and they were not shy on taking it out on the Roosevelts.
People don't eat in the long run; they eat every day.
Think about the contrast between then and now. We're not hurting nearly as badly as America was then, and the antecedents to health reform aren't nearly as radical as the ones preceding Social Security. Yet opposition is opposition, and whether it was deficit reduction, ginned up dislike of the First Lady, or class warfare, the attacks are all too familiar.
The knowledgeable guides at the FDR library were all too happy to remind visitors that Social Security hasn't always been there, and without public support, isn't guaranteed to be there in the future. There was Republican opposition to it then, and there's Republican opposition to it now.
But it is our plain duty (watch the video) to remember where we came from, how we got here, and why we need to protect and preserve Social Security. This was a Democratic program for all Americans, and it's going to take Democrats to defend it in a meaningful way so that it's there for all Americans in the future.
Read up on its history and the era in which it came from. Think about ways the program can be strengthened and defended. And watch this video and reflect on a great American's legacy that was part of getting this great country moving again.
FDR is quite literally why I am a Democrat today, and why I'll likely always be one. It's a tradition worth remembering for more reasons than one.