More than 80 years after its birth in the depths of the Great Depression, Social Security is deeply woven into the nation's fabric. But Americans were initially skeptical of a program that seemed contrary to their faith in rugged individualism. "It is difficult now to understand fully the doubts and confusions in which we were planning this great new enterprise," FDR's Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins wrote later.
In a conversation with Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone, Perkins, whom Roosevelt had tasked with designing what then seemed like a radical departure from traditional ideas about the role of government in American life, confided her uncertainty about how to make this work within constitutional bounds. Stone in reply whispered, "The taxing power of the federal government, my dear; the taxing power is sufficient for everything you want and need."
In 1935, a time when British and German systems of support were easing the perils of old age, left and right in America saw reasons to contest Roosevelt's reform. Liberals objected to withholding taxes from current wages to fund pension payments. Instead of expanding the economy through federal largess in a time of continuing depression, the plan reduced employees' take-home pay by pouring millions of dollars into a fund that would not put money into circulation until workers retired. Moreover, it made no provisions for farm workers or domestics or workers in small businesses with fewer than 10 employees. And those who were already past age 65 were also left out of the mix.
Conservatives were even more vocal. Industry leaders objected to a major expansion of the federal government and forecast financial collapse and "the inevitable abandonment of private capitalism." The head of General Motors predicted that it would destroy "initiative," discourage "thrift" and stifle "individual responsibility."
Republicans in the House foresaw the enslavement of workers: "The lash of the dictator will be felt," one said. Another saw calamity ahead: "This bill opens the door and invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful as to threaten the integrity of our institutions and to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants."
Roosevelt understood the opposition to the program, especially the objections from both ends of the political spectrum over taxes. But he believed that they were essential to preserve whatever was put in place. "We put those payroll contributions there," he said, "so as to give the contributors a legal, moral and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits. With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my social security program."
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But "after all the howls and squawks," Roosevelt pointed out, most Republicans, reluctant to oppose majority opinion, joined Democrats in both chambers in voting for the measure.
To the surprise of most outspoken critics, none of their worries materialized. When the law was signed by Roosevelt on Aug. 14, 1935, it joined his other social reforms, such as Federal Deposit Insurance to protect bank accounts, and reforms by subsequent presidents, such as Lyndon Johnson's 1965 Medicare bill, to save older Americans from financial ruin. The law was not set in concrete but rather was an expandable program that, by the mid-1950s, covered almost all employees and the self-employed as well. Nor were these changes strictly owned by Democratic administrations. During Richard Nixon's presidency, Social Security benefits increased by 50 percent.
By the 21st century, Social Security had become universally popular and helped foster the view in the U.S. that federal social welfare programs are not a threat to free enterprise but a means of preserving it in a more humane industrial system. Proposals to privatize the program have repeatedly fallen by the wayside and it seems clear that, whatever the deficiencies of the system, no politician — as FDR predicted — is in a position to take it away.
Robert Dallek is the author of books on John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson and of an upcoming biography of Franklin Roosevelt.