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Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Social Security’s Enduring Legacy: Adaptability

On the 77th anniversary of Social Security, we’re celebrating what has made the program so important and why it continues to be vital today. Mark Schmitt lauds it for its ability to provide security throughout tectonic shifts in our economy and society. Read the rest of our coverage here.

If Franklin D. Roosevelt rejoined the living tomorrow, he probably wouldn’t recognize Social Security, his greatest domestic legacy. That might sound like something a critic or skeptic of the program would say, as if it had broken faith with Roosevelt’s vision or expanded far beyond its original intent.

But, in fact, what Roosevelt would see would be Social Security’s greatest virtue: its adaptability to changing circumstances. Social Security has survived, thrived, and continued to provide a base level of economic security not only through big macroeconomic shifts (such as the inflation of the 1970s) but also the transformations and uncertainties in our individual and family lives. That adaptability and continuous reexamination and improvement is the quality most in keeping with the experimental, pragmatic nature of the New Deal.

Between 1935 and 2000, there were 30 major legislative changes to Social Security, roughly one every two years, under Republican and Democratic administrations. In 1939, it expanded its focus from the individual worker to the family, adding benefits for surviving spouses and young children. In 1950, it expanded to cover domestic and farm workers, whose omission was the atrocious compromise FDR had made to secure the support of Southern conservatives. In successive changes from 1954 through 1960, a disability program was created, and in the 1970s, benefits were indexed to inflation. Changes in 1977 and 1983 adjusted the financing of the program, changing the formula for benefits to reduce costs and build up more of a reserve (the Trust Fund) so that future retirees financed some of their own benefits. In 2000, the earnings test for Social Security recipients was eliminated. And while Social Security was created with the assumption of a male breadwinner, over 77 years it has been adjusted to account for the changing role of women in the workforce and the family.

The point of this history is a reminder that Social Security is not a fixed, unchanging thing, a jewel of the New Deal to be worshiped. Rather, it is an incredibly adaptive, responsive structure on which we’ve been able to build several different forms of economic and family security and adjust to radical changes in the economy, family, industry, education, and expectations over the years.