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This Week in History

August 4-10, 1935
FDR Signs the Social Security Act into Law

August 2013

Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

On Aug. 14, 1935, Franklin Roosevelt put his signature to a piece of legislation which he considered to be the crowning achievement of that Congress. He had worked for more than a year to ensure some measure of economic protection for the American people, and led the fight for its passage on the basis of widely-shared principles, not allowing discussion to degenerate into wrangling over technical details.

Although there were earlier bits and pieces of legislation which tended in the same direction, the history of Roosevelt's efforts toward comprehensive Federal Social Security legislation began with his Message to Congress on June 8, 1934. There, he told the Congress that,

"I place the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation first. This security for the individual and for the family concerns itself primarily with three factors. People want decent homes to live in; they want to locate them where they can engage in productive work; and they want some safeguard against misfortunes which cannot be wholly eliminated in this man-made world of ours."...

"The third factor," continued the President, "relates to security against the hazards and vicissitudes of life. Fear and worry based on unknown danger contribute to social unrest and economic demoralization. If, as our Constitution tells us, our Federal Government was established among other things 'to promote the general welfare,' it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends. Next winter we may well undertake the great task of furthering the security of the citizen and his family though social insurance."

Having notified Congress of his intention, Roosevelt used his first Fireside Chat of 1934, broadcast on June 28, to tell the American people that

"I have pointed out to the Congress that we are seeking to find the way once more to well-known, long-established, but to some degree forgotten ideals and values. We seek the security of the men, women, and children of the Nation." One of the goals, he said, "is to use the agencies of government to assist in the establishment of means to provide sound and adequate protection against the vicissitudes of modern life—in other words, social insurance. Later in the year I hope to talk with you more fully about these plans."

Roosevelt then stated that, "A few timid people, who fear progress, will try to give you new and strange names for what we are doing. Sometimes they will call it "Fascism," sometimes "Communism," sometimes "Regimentation," sometimes "Socialism." But, in so doing, they are trying to make very complex and theoretical something that is really very simple and very practical."

As had happened during the first "Hundred Days" of legislation to save the American people and economy, Roosevelt now faced some strident opposition to the principle of Federal Social Security. He frequently said that these were many of the same people and same institutions that had opposed his fight for Old Age Pensions when he was Governor of New York. In his Fireside Chat of Sept. 30, he took them head on:

"I believe with Abraham Lincoln, that 'The legitimate object of Government is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot do so well for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.' I am not for a return to that definition of liberty under which for many years a free people were being gradually regimented into the service of the privileged few. I prefer, and I am sure you prefer, that broader definition of liberty under which we are moving forward to greater freedom, to greater security for the average man than he has ever known before in the history of America."

The day after his first Fireside Chat, on June 29, President Roosevelt signed an Executive Order called "The Initiation of Studies To Achieve a Program of National Social and Economic Security." It established the Committee on Economic Security, chaired by the Secretary of Labor, and included the Secretary of the Treasury, the Attorney General, the Secretary of Agriculture, and the Federal Emergency Relief Administrator. The order also set up an Advisory Council on Economic Security, the original members of which were appointed by the President, and additional members of which could be appointed by the Committee. In order to facilitate its work, the Committee eventually appointed a number of advisory groups, including a committee on actuarial consultants, a medical advisory board, and advisory committees on dentistry, hospitals, public health, child welfare, and employment relief.

The Advisory Council consisted of representatives of industry, labor, and social welfare, and its chairman was the President of the University of North Carolina. It met at the White House on Nov. 14, 1934, and was addressed by the President, who told them that,

"At this time, we are deciding on long-term objectives. We are developing a plan of administration into which can be fitted the various parts of the security program when it is timely to do so. We cannot work miracles or solve all our problems at once. What we can do is to lay a sound foundation on which we can build a structure to give a greater measure of safety and happiness to the individual than any we have ever known. In this task you can greatly help."

By Jan. 17, 1935, the recommendations of the Committee and Council were ready, and were submitted to Congress along with a message from the President, entitled "A Greater Future Economic Security of the American People." In it, Roosevelt recommended legislation to provide unemployment compensation, old-age benefits, Federal aid to dependent children, and additional Federal aid to state and local public-health agencies and the strengthening of the Federal Public Health Service. The Social Security Act, as passed, also dealt with maternal and child-welfare services, aid to the blind, and vocational rehabilitation.

Upon signing the legislation on Aug. 14, President Roosevelt made the following statement:

"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 30 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 100% of the population against 100% 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.

"I congratulate all of you ladies and gentlemen, all of you in the Congress, in the executive departments, and all of you who come from private life, and I thank you for your splendid efforts in behalf of this sound, needed and patriotic legislation.

"If the Senate and the House of Representatives in this long and arduous session had done nothing more than pass this Bill, the session would be regarded as historic for all time."


The original article was published in the EIR Online’s Electronic Intelligence Weekly, as part of an ongoing series on history, with a special emphasis on American history. We are reprinting and updating these articles now to assist our readers in understanding of the American System of Economy.