Social Security at 75

The same groups that opposed it in 1935 are against health-care reform today

Seventy-five years ago this week, during the depths of the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed into law one of the most significant pieces of legislation in American history: the Social Security Act of 1935. Not only did it create a government insurance program to provide retirement incomes for seniors, it also set up a national unemployment-insurance program and provided aid to the children of widows and single mothers.

Social Security was as controversial in its time as health-care reform is today. It was strongly opposed by the Republican Party and the mainstream business community, who predicted that it would bankrupt the country. The American Medical Association condemned it as a “compulsory socialistic tax.” The Republican candidate for president, Alf Landon, called it a “fraud on the working man.”

As Peter Dreier and Donald Cohen point out in a recent Los Angeles Times essay, “FDR viewed Social Security as part of his broader New Deal effort to humanize capitalism. Born to privilege, he understood that many wealthy people considered him a traitor to his class. They were, he thought, greedy, unenlightened and on the wrong side of history.”

The act’s success in raising people out of poverty is undeniable, and today it is considered a fundamental component of the nation’s social contract. But as Dreier and Cohen note, the battle isn’t over. “Today, business groups and right-wing zealots oppose health-care reform, tougher financial regulations, stronger workplace safety laws, policies to limit climate change, higher taxes on the rich and extension of unemployment insurance to the long-term jobless.”

The lesson of Social Security at 75 is clear: Government programs to rectify the imbalances of unbridled capitalism are good for the country and all Americans.