It’s not often that a president manages a short, clear statement that also gets just about everything right, but here’s an exception:
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.
On this day in 1935, Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. As he said, it represented the first major victory of the social insurance movement, which dated back to the late nineteenth century. As people came to understand that occasional unemployment had become an ordinary and blameless condition of modern life and that increasingly, so had survival into an old age in which one would need to retire from labor, they urged policies to insure against poverty resulted from either of these unavoidable eventualities.
The Social Security Act provided for protection against unemployment and old-age as well as disability and other mishaps. The bulk of its benefits are not best characterized as welfare but as insurance, as Roosevelt said (regarding which see Mark Thoma here, and here, and here). Like all insurance it is a bulwark against bad times, something to lessen the hardship of economic misfortune.
And the 1935 law represented a compromise, the basis for something better. You probably know that the Committee on Economic Security originally wanted to include health insurance in the Social Security Act, but that it seemed politically impossible at the time. And you probably also know that Social Security required occasional mending, such as for example to cover persons originally not insured.
But with it the U.S. took a first step toward a more humane society, toward protecting (as Roosevelt’s cousin-uncle Theodore said) “the crushable elements at the base of our present industrial structure.”
After Roosevelt’s own statement, the best early comment on the act’s significance is probably Benjamin Cardozo’s explanation in Helvering v. Davis, as the Court upheld the law:
But the ill is all one, or at least not greatly different, whether men are thrown out of work because there is no longer work to do or because the disabilities of age make them incapable of doing it. Rescue becomes necessary irrespective of the cause. The hope behind this statute is to save men and women from the rigors of the poor house, as well as from the haunting fear that such a lot awaits them when journey’s end is near.
Social Security deserved that poetry. Along with the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, it assuredly rates among the single acts of Congress that have done the most good most effectively for the most Americans.