Man’s quest for economic security is as old and as continuous as our records of human life itself. It appears in classical antiquity in policies to provide bread for the needy. It is exemplified in the middle ages by the lords assuming some responsibility for the welfare of their vassals. It is visible in early modern times in poor laws, charity workshops, poor farms and the philanthropic activities of religious organizations.

  • "Social Security:" Origin of the TermAbraham Epstein is credited with recommending the use of the term Social Security: Epstein, Frankel said, was in the process of “...establishing a national organization to spread the gospel of old age assistance throughout the United States. . . the proposed American Old Age Pension Association. When I heard the word pension’ it did not sit so well with me, knowing that at that moment the word had a connotation of politically radical action which challenged the established order. I told Epstein I would not use the word pension. He naturally asked me what word I would suggest. I thought for a moment and simply said: ‘security’.”
  • Are We Overlooking the Pursuit of Happiness?"...For the old people who have lived so long a life of independence, how bitter it must be to come for everything they need to the youngsters who once turned to them! From every point of view, it seems to me that the old age pension for people who so obviously could not lay aside enough during their working years to live on adequately through their old age, is a national responsibility and one that must be faced when we are planning for a better future. Unemployment insurance in many homes is all that stands between many a family and starvation. Given a breathing spell, a man or woman may be able to get another job or to re-educate himself in some new line of work, but few people live with such a wide margin that they have enough laid aside to face several months of idleness...."
  • Child Welfare: A 1934 Report on Security for Children Special measures needed to promote the normal growth and development of children include (1) services additional to those provided in a comprehensive general program of social security, and (2) aspects of a general security program which are of special importance to children and which may be incorporated in proposals for immediate action, pending the formulation and adoption of a complete program. Both these types of measures should be planned in relation to general proposals for economic security, social welfare, medical care, and public health.
  • Committee on Economic Security - 1934The President's Committee on Economic Security (CES) was formed in June 1934 and was given the task of devising "recommendations concerning proposals which in its judgment will promote greater economic security." In a message to Congress two weeks earlier President Roosevelt spelled-out what he expected the CES to achieve. ". . . I am looking for a sound means which I can recommend to provide at once security against several of the great disturbing factors in life--especially those which relate to unemployment and old age."
  • Framing the Future Social Security DebateHaving recently completed work on a documentary history of the Social Security program1, several insights suggest themselves which might be useful in framing the (inevitable) future debates over Social Security policy. The first and most salient realization is that to a remarkable degree the policy debates in Social Security seem to contain some hardy perennials.
  • Legal Background of the Social Security ActBeginning in the early 1900's, a number of States had started to pass State statutes designed to substitute for the old-fashioned poorhouse some kind of aid to poor people who were aged so that they could maintain their own homes. This was partly humanitarian; it was partly because soft-hearted social workers, a profession that was only just beginning, understood that many aged people couldn't bear to be called paupers and be treated accordingly; and it was partly because when they were moved out of their homes and were put into poorhouses, It was a heart-breaking experience frequently followed by unhappy conditions. There was, however, another interest here--an influence that caused State action. It was purely economic. It was very expensive to run poorhouses.
  • Old Age Pensions"...We can hardly be happy knowing that throughout this country so many fine citizens who have done all that they could for their young people must end their days divided--for they usually are divided in the poorhouse. Old people love their own things even more than young people do. It means so much to sit in the same old chair you sat in for a great many years, to see the same picture that you always looked at! And that is what an old age security law will do. It will allow the old people to end their days in happiness, and it will take the burden from the younger people who often have all the struggle that they can stand. It will end a bitter situation--bitter for the old people because they hate to be a burden on the young, and bitter for the young because they would like to give gladly but find themselves giving grudgingly and bitterly because it is taking away from what they need for the youth that is coming and is looking to them for support. For that reason I believe that this bill will be a model bill and pass without any opposition this year."
  • Old Age Security: Abraham Epstein's View We all know, of course, that any program of social security will be complete if complete security is provided and the best kind of security. But I believe that since we are just imperfect human beings, and most of us are imperfect, we should confine ourselves for the present to one problem, at least try to solve one problem at a time, not 100 per cent, or even 90 per cent. If you can only get over that philosophy to the legislatures, I think that all of our problems on social security in this country will be solved. The reason that there is no perfect remedy for making old age absolutely secure, no matter what principle is adopted, no matter what legislation we enact, is that there will always be certain flaws to make it at least just below 100 per cent perfect, if for no other reason than the fact that the members of the Senate and House of Representatives are fallible people. Some may not believe that, but at least most of us agree on it. Therefore, we cannot expect infallible laws.
  • Perkins, FrancesFrances Perkins was chosen by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be his Secretary of Labor, the first time a woman held a cabinet position. As secretary, she played a key role in writing New Deal legislation. She immediately proposed federal aid to the states for direct unemployment relief, an extensive program of public works, an approach to the establishment by federal law of minimum wages and maximum hours; unemployment and old-age insurance, abolition of child labor, and the creation of a federal employment service.
  • Problems Addressed By Social Security: 1936The Social Security Act, our first organized and nation-wide security program, is designed to meet no less than five problems. It is designed to protect childhood, to provide for the handicapped, to safeguard the public health, to break the impact of unemployment, and to establish a systematic defense against dependency in old age.
  • Robert M. Ball Social Security PioneerBall started his career in the Social Security field in 1939 and he labored on issues related to Social Security without stint for the next 69 years, working up until two weeks before his death at age 93.
  • Social Responsibility for Individual Welfare We have to recognize that our type of capitalism in this country is different from what the same word connotes in some other countries. From the time of the last depression we have taken great strides in the recognition of the responsibility of government and industry to cooperate to prevent any disasters to the normal economy of the country. We have to be prepared to meet disasters caused by nature. These we expect the government to cooperate in meeting, but we recognize the responsibility of industry today as well as of the individual. We believe that together we should strive to give every individual a chance for a decent and secure existence and in evolving our social patterns we are trying to give both hope for better things in the future and security from want in the present.
  • Social Security Act of 1935On August 15, 1935, the Social Security Act established a system of old-age benefits for workers, benefits for victims of industrial accidents, unemployment insurance, aid for dependent mothers and children, the blind, and the physically handicapped.
  • Social Security Compared to Public AssistanceThus the Social Security Act was really a compromise. It reconciled the philosophy of individualism with the facts of economic interdependence. It involved acceptance of the premise that a Government has a certain responsibility for the welfare of its people --one consistent with humanitarian principles and with the tradition of democratic Government. It would have been more radical had the Government assumed responsibility to assure continuity of income and a minimum level of economic well being to those citizens whose income had been interrupted or curtailed by certain risks or events. This, as you know, is under serious consideration today.
  • Social Security: A Brief History of Social InsuranceAs we know today when enacted, social security neither damaged the liberty of the citizen nor eliminated the voluntary aspects of community action. Instead, it provided a support that invigorated both. But earlier in this century, social insurance had to contend with the idealization of voluntary institutions which are deeply rooted in the United States. Voluntary associations performed the function of mediating between the individual and mass society and Government.
  • Social Security: A Radio Address by Frances Perkins, 1935Barely a month after President Roosevelt presented the Report of the Committee on Economic Security to the Congress, along with the Administration's draft Economic Security Bill, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins went on a national radio broadcast to explain the Administration's proposals to the American people. This was one of the earliest popular explanations of what would become the Social Security program.
  • Social Security: An Introduction“Social Security” is the term commonly used to describe the federal retirement benefit program created by Title II of the Social Security Act of 1935. Title II, labeled FEDERAL OLD-AGE BENEFITS, created a “universal contributory social insurance” program designed to protect workers and their families against loss of income due to retirement or the death of a wage earner. Initially, to be eligible for Social Security a wage earner must have worked in covered employment, earned at least $2,000 and attained the age of 65. (Note: Initially, “covered employment” was very narrowly defined, limited mainly to paid work in manufacturing and commerce. As described in Section 210 below, large segments of the working population were exempt from coverage.)
  • Social Security: Early HistoryMan's quest for economic security is as old and as continuous as our records of human life itself. Evidence of it is to be found in the most primitive people's attempts to shift from a hunting economy to settled agriculture. it can be seen among early urban societies in projects to store grain for lean years. It appears in classical antiquity in policies to provide bread for the needy. It is exemplified in the middle ages by the lords assuming some responsibility for the welfare of their vassals. It is visible in early modern times in poor laws, charity workshops, poor farms and the philanthropic activities of religious organizations.
  • Social Security: Early Promotional Posters Posters like these were designed to bring information about the new Social Security Act of 1935 to the American public.
  • Social Security: Old Age Survivors Insurance ProgramsSocial security is the term commonly used to describe the Old Age, Survivors Insurance program (OASI) created by Title II of the Social Security Act of 1935. The original OASDI legislation was developed as one part of the federal response to the economic vulnerabilities of workers and their families revealed by the Great Depression of the 1930s.
  • Social Security: Organizational History of SSAThe Social Security Administration (SSA) began in 1935. It became a sub-cabinet agency in 1939, and returned full-circle to independent status in 1995. Throughout the years, arguments had been heard in the halls of Congress that SSA should be returned to independent agency status. This debate was given impetus in 1981 when the National Commission on Social Security recommended that SSA once again become an independent Social Security Board.
  • Social Security: The Roosevelt AdministrationPresident Franklin Delano Roosevelt's philosophy was: that Government has a positive responsibility for the general welfare. Not that Government itself must do everything, but that everything practicable must be done. A critical question for F.D.R. was whether a middle way was possible-- a mixed system which might give the State more power than conservatives would like, enough power indeed to assure economic and social security, but still not so much as to create dictatorship.
  • Social Security: Unemployment Insurance“The fundamental case for unemployment protection lies in the fact that under a democratic form of society we are forced to prevent any large-scale starvation. Funds must be provided somehow . . . It is practical sense to build a system which will gather the funds in good times and disburse them in bad times. This simple theory underlies all formal proposals for unemployment insurance, for unemployment reserves.” Stanley King in American Labor Legislation Review, December 1933, p. 170.
  • The Roots of Social Security by Frances PerkinsBefore I was appointed, I had a little conversation with Roosevelt in which I said perhaps he didn't want me to be the Secretary, of Labor because if I were, I should want to do this, and this, and this. Among the things I wanted to do was find a way of getting unemployment insurance, old-age insurance, and health insurance. I remember he looked so startled, and he said, "Well, do you think it can be done?" I said, "I don't know." He said, Well, there are constitutional problems, aren't there?" "Yes, very severe constitutional problems," I said. "But what have we been elected for except to solve the constitutional problems? Lots of other problems have been solved by the people of the United States, and there is no reason why this one shouldn't be solved." "Well," he said, "do you think you can do it?" "I don't know, " I said But I wanted to try. "I want to know if I have your authorization. I won't ask you to promise anything." He looked at me and nodded wisely. "All right," he said, "I will authorize you to try, and if you succeed, that's fine."
  • The Townsend PlanThe Townsend Plan proved enormously popular. Within two years of the publication of the Plan as a Letter to the Editor in a Long Beach, California newspaper, there were over 7,000 "Townsend Clubs" with over 2.2 million members actively working to make the Townsend Plan the nation's old-age pension system. At one point in 1936 Townsend was able to deliver petitions to Congress containing 10 million signatures in support of the Townsend Plan. Public opinion surveys in 1935 found that 56% of Americans favored adoption of the Townsend Plan.
  • Traditional Sources of Economic SecurityWhen the English-speaking colonists arrived in the New World they brought with them the ideas and customs they knew in England, including the "Poor Laws." The first colonial poor laws were fashioned after those of the Poor Law of 1601. They featured local taxation to support the destitute; they discriminated between the "worthy" and the "unworthy" poor; and all relief was a local responsibility. No public institutions for the poor or standardized eligibility criteria would exist for nearly a century. It was up to local town elders to decide who was worthy of support and how that support would be provided. As colonial America grew more complex, diverse and mobile, the localized systems of poor relief were strained. The result was some limited movement to state financing and the creation of almshouses and poorhouses to "contain" the problem. For much of the 18th and 19th centuries most poverty relief was provided in the almshouses and poorhouses.
  • Unemployment Compensation: A 1934 Report The unprecedented extent and duration of unemployment in the United States since 1930 has left no one who is dependent upon a wage or salary untouched by the dread of loss of work. Unemployment relief distributed as a form of public charity, though necessary to prevent starvation, is not a solution of the problem. It is expensive to distribute and demoralizing to both donor and recipient. A device is needed which will assure those who are involuntarily unemployed a small steady income for a limited period. Such income, received as a right, is provided by an unemployment insurance or unemployment compensation system.
  • Veteran's Pensions: Early HistorySince the original resolution of 1776 pension legislation has been voluminous, and down to the revision of the pension laws in 1873 may be justly termed chaotic. This paper will attempt only to outline some of the general features. In order to do this the more clearly the various grants of pensions may be divided into four classes, viz.: I. Pensions based upon disability incurred in service, or the death of the soldier from such cause. II. Pensions based upon service and indigence, without regard to the origin of existing disability, or the cause of the soldiers death. III. Pensions based upon service only. IV. Pensions based upon disability, without regard to the origin of such disability or the pecuniary circumstances of the beneficiary.
  • Wilbur J. Cohen and the Expansion of Social SecurityWe tend to think of the expansion of social security as something impersonal and bureaucratic. It is almost as if the program expanded by itself. The basic old-age insurance program never posed issues that defined the political or cultural character of an era. Yet we know that the process of social security's growth was neither smooth nor straight forward.
  • Winant, John G.Winant was a lifelong Republican whose humanitarian principles transcended party lines. Influenced by the writings of Charles Dickens and John Ruskin and inspired by the examples of Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, he was as governor a forceful advocate of progressive reform initiatives, including a 48-hour work week for women and children, a minimum wage, and the abolition of capital punishment. In 1935, Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him the first chairman of the Social Security Board.