Found in the Archives

Enacting Social Security

On August 14, 1935 legislators and advisors crowded into the White House Cabinet Room to witness the signing of the Social Security Act. News photographers and film crews recorded the moment for history as FDR put his signature on the bill. Standing directly behind the President was the person most responsible for it – Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins.

After signing the Act, the President read a short statement. “We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life,” he observed. “But we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protections to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.” The headline in that day’s Washington Post red “New Deal’s Most Important Act.”


3 thoughts on “Found in the Archives

  1. From what is written here, one would conclude that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ONLY involvement with Social Security was passively signing a bill wholly authored and pushed by other people.

    I understand that the co-chair of today’s Social Security birthday event at the FDR Library is Christopher Breiseth — a Frances Perkins Center board member and strong booster of Frances Perkins — and that Mr. Breiseth has co-edited a book about Frances Perkins, “A Promise to All Generations: Stories and Essays about Social Security and Frances Perkins.”

    I, too, admire Frances Perkins, but to write about this legislation as if ALL President Roosevelt did was sign it does not tell the full story. During the Great Depression, there was much outside political pressure for the government to provide at least SOME economic security for old people in America; FDR rivals Dr. Francis Townsend and Huey “the Kingfish” Long were also pushing for some sort of legislation to protect old people in their senior years. Even earlier — when FDR was Governor of New York State — he had established the first state relief agency under Harry Hopkins and had urged the N.Y. State legislature to pass an old age pension bill and an unemployment insurance bill.

    Wouldn’t it be nice, if just once, the staffers at the FDR Library could give FDR some credit for — as President of the United States — deciding to whom he would listen, from whom he would seek advice, from whom he would seek input, and in the end what legislation he would support!

    FDR was the President of the United States — not an uninterested onlooker.

    As governor of New York from 1928 to 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt had already been a strong advocate of old-age pensions and unemployment insurance. When the Wall Street stock market crash in October 1929 led to a deepening Depression, Governor Roosevelt began a relief system that later became the model for the Federal Emergency Relief Administration.

    FDR asked the New York State legislature $millions in relief funds, which was spent on public works to stimulate demand and provide jobs. He also urged the N.Y. State legislature to pass an old age pension bill and an unemployment insurance bill.

    FDR did NOT surround himself with “yes” men; he sought and absorbed advice and input from a variety of people on every side of an issue before deciding what to support and what to push Congress to support. Many, many people gave FDR advice from multiple points of view’ but in the end, the decisions were the president’s — FDR’s.

    It’s also a good thing that FDR had pushed for reform of the U.S. Supreme Court — at great political risk to himself — or Social Security would NOT have been decided, by the old guard in place on that High Court, to be Constitutional.

    FDR and his advisors could create and push for any legislation they pleased, but if it was then to be knocked down as un-Constitutional by the old men on the Supreme Court, none of it would have been implemented.

    1. Thank you, “tpartridge1”!

      You confirm my belief that people who come to this website are eager to learn about FDR. It is a joy to write about him, as he is a fascinating person and he was one of our greatest presidents.

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