On Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the first Social Security Act into law. In the aftermath of the Great Depression, during which poverty encompassed some 60% of the senior population in the United States, Social Security was a major plank of Roosevelt’s “New Deal.” The law was passed after an intense period of struggle in which trade unions, the left generally, and the Communist Party USA, in particular, played a significant role.
Three years before Roosevelt enacted Social Security, the Communist Party issued a pamphlet saying: “Social insurance is a system of government support to give workers financial assistance, thus affording them a measure of security in case of accident, sickness, death of the wage earner, unemployment, child bearing, or dependent old age. … The fight for social insurance must go on because it is a fight for security in the daily struggle for existence faced by every member of the working class.”
Social Security’s roots are to be found in the campaign launched by the Communist Party with the formation of the National Unemployed Council in 1930. Local unemployed councils were set up in scores of cities all over the country. Besides the unemployed, this movement also included trade unions, fraternal societies, Black organizations, and others.
The Unemployed Councils fought for unemployment insurance, immediate cash and work relief, public work at union wages, food for school children, and against evictions, discrimination towards African-Americans, and more. They used mass meetings, parades, petitions, picketing, hunger marches, and many other forms of struggle. They formed block committees to organize workers in their homes. They put pressure on public officials at every level, from the local neighborhood all the way to Washington, D.C.
Frances Perkins, FDR’s secretary of labor, was the architect of the historic legislation that made Social Security a reality. In an ultimate sense, her devotion to the cause of labor stemmed from being an eyewitness to the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911.
Perkins wrote how difficult it was later “to understand fully the doubts and confusions in which we were planning this great new enterprise.” She recalled meeting with Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone, who reminded her that “the taxing power is sufficient for everything you want and need.” That power would translate into paycheck deductions – perhaps less a tax as such, and more an investment in workers’ own future security.
At first, Social Security did not cover farm workers, domestic workers, or laborers in businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Historians have interpreted these limitations as the price FDR had to pay at the beginning in order to get Southern Democrats to sign on. Of course, if you were already over 65, you missed out. In subsequent years, Social Security has been extended to cover these excluded groups – almost all employees and the self-employed.
The right wing “economic royalists,” as FDR called them in his time, predictably opposed Social Security as “socialistic”; however, in the end, most Republicans joined Democrats in Congress to vote for it. Both parties continued to support Social Security for decades; in fact, benefits went up 50% under GOP President Richard Nixon. But that didn’t change the fundamental opposition to Social Security in the Republican Party.
For years, Republican politicians have been attacking Social Security with the same tired fear-mongering they’ve been using since 1935. The right wing criticizes “entitlements” (as they call them) for supposedly bankrupting the country; most working people, however, see them as earned benefits, part of the long-term social contract, an insurance program from which most people – though not all – will eventually benefit. Workers who have had difficult, backbreaking jobs without decent benefits all their lives tend to have shorter life spans, and will enjoy fewer years of retirement, if any. And yet they paid in like everyone else.
The only solution coming from the GOP is either to privatize Social Security, so as to help Wall Street profit from it, or reduce benefits to future or even current recipients.
But another solution is staring us in the face: The current wage cap on Social Security payments is only $160,200. Most people in the working class earn far less than that, but everyone on Wall Street earns at least that with their generous bonuses, and many professionals, mid-level managers, and fund managers earn many times that. Some highly paid CEOs make $160,200 literally in the first few hours of the year, then pay no further Social Security taxes. The billionaire class, whose wealth has exponentially skyrocketed in recent decades while working-class wages have flatlined, has actually stolen that money from our future. If everyone paid the same rate into Social Security, no matter how much income they make, the Social Security reserve would be guaranteed into the infinite future.
Since 1935, through good times and bad, Social Security has been there for America’s seniors, people with disabilities, children, and veterans. Before Social Security, about half of America’s seniors lived in poverty. Today, that number has been reduced to just over 10%, though, alarmingly, it has been climbing again in recent years as inflation and other economic troubles weigh on retired workers. Social Security remains, however, the essential core of a retiree’s livelihood in the U.S., allowing people to age with some level of dignity and independence. Currently, about 66 million people receive Social Security.
In this generation, current and future retirees are preparing for a lower standard of living in retirement than their parents. With around half of U.S. households having zero retirement savings, elected officials must look for ways to expand the only guaranteed source of retirement security: Social Security, the most successful social insurance program in our country’s history.