By Jeffrey Freedman
In the 1930s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt saw Britain and Germany establish support systems to assist their citizens through the pitfalls of old age and proposed a similar program for the United States.
Then-Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was asked to design the program, but was not sure it could exist within the bounds of the Constitution. Supreme Court Justice Harlan Stone told her: “The taxing power of the federal government, my dear, is sufficient for everything you want and need.”
The pushback FDR and Perkins faced was intense. The country was in the middle of a depression. Liberals thought it was folly to reduce workers’ pay and put millions into a fund that wouldn’t benefit anyone until retirement. Conservatives called it an expansion of “big government.” Business feared it would change America’s “rugged individualism” and promote less initiative, savings and personal responsibility.
But “after all the howls and squawks,” the legislation was signed into law Aug. 14, 1935. It paved the way for further social reforms like Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 Medicare program, and by the ’50s covered almost all employees and the self-employed. Benefits increased 50 percent during Richard Nixon’s presidency. In 1956 disability benefits were added.
Today, Social Security provides a minimal income for 38 million retired workers and 8.8 million disabled workers.
I have advocated for disabled workers for more than 30 years. Over time I have seen SSDI benefits mean the difference between sleeping on a friend’s couch or living in a parent’s basement and having a home of your own.
In addition to the physical benefits, there is the psychological benefit of having independence for those who can no longer work because of illness or injury.
A lot of attention has been paid to the 2014 Social Security trustees report that in 18 years the trust fund will be depleted and Social Security will be able to pay only 77 percent of workers’ benefits. There are options for fixing the situation: raise the current wage cap for contributions, tighten benefits for the wealthy, include state and government workers in the program and raise the retirement age.
As we mark this 80th anniversary and look toward the 2016 elections, we need to remember that planning for the future of Social Security is critical. We need to ask our political candidates: What is your proposal for maintaining this vital piece of our social fabric?
Jeffrey Freedman is a member of the National Organization of Social Security Claimants Representatives.