National History Center

National History Center's Seminar Spotlights Social Security

Pillarisetti Sudhir, September 2005

Myths and misunderstandings about what social security is, and misperceptions of what the makers of social security policies really intended in the 1930s, tend to cloud current debates. In the second of a series of congressional breakfast seminars organized by the National History Center, historians Edward Berkowitz and Alice Kessler-Harris deftly condensed the complex history of the legislation, its implementation, and its consequences, into two lucid presentations that—in spite of their brevity—swept away many of the cobwebs of confusion even while underlining the importance of understanding the historical perspective of the current crisis.

Alice Kessler-Harris, the R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of American History in Honor of Dwight D. Eisenhower at Columbia University and the author of, among other books, In Pursuit of Equity: Women, Men, and the Quest for Economic Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, traced the intellectual and political roots of the social security legislation as it was conceived in the 1930s and hammered out in subsequent legislative compromises and amendments. The people who framed the policies had three major aims, Kessler-Harris said.

The first was to respond to a growing sense that responsibility for the aging poor could no longer be handled by individuals and their families; the second was to get older people out of the labor force to make way for younger workers (and thus laying down, in the process, a labor policy as well); and the third was to ensure the dignity of the family "breadwinners"—the men in the labor force. From the beginning, the concept of social security proved challenging, necessitating revisions and compromises. Originally, the idea was that every worker would get what he (and the worker in prewar America tended to be conceived as male) put in, but soon the program was expanded to provide more adequate coverage for low-paid workers and to pay "survivor benefits" to the families of deceased workers. Later, the stipulation that social security would be available only to those who left the labor force was also changed. Although in its initial stages the legislation excluded large numbers of women, especially African American women, postwar changes in the demographics of the workforce compelled expanded coverage. Kessler-Harris pointed out that the social security pension was not viewed as a "dole," but rather as a right, and that though there was a question whether social security should be viewed as an individual return or a social return, the tendency was to move toward the latter.

Edward Berkowitz, professor of history and public policy and public administration and director of the masters program in history and public policy at George Washington University and author of many books, including Robert Ball and the Politics of Social Security, prefaced his analysis by alluding to the many misunderstandings that tend to characterize popular perceptions about social security. He cited as an example the widely prevalent notion that social security was antithetical to private accounts. On the contrary, Berkowitz said, all evidence showed that investments in private accounts increased after social security programs were implemented, perhaps because the availability of additional funds made it possible to make such investments. Neither surpluses nor crises were new to social security, Berkowitz argued, pointing out that when there were surpluses, Congress found ways to spend them, either by expanding the program or by reducing the social security tax; when crises occurred, they were met and overcome, and the program survived. By stressing the bipartisan nature of the solutions that Congress and presidential commissions developed in the past, Berkowitz appeared to be contrasting historical experience with the contemporary, seemingly intractable dilemmas. He went on to say that just as President Nixon's attempts to reform social welfare programs and President Clinton's efforts to change health care systems "failed," but, nevertheless, produced far-reaching, if unintended, changes, so might the attempts by President George W. Bush to take on the "fortress of the welfare state." The president may not necessarily get what he wants, but many changes may occur in the system of social security as a result of the current debates, Berkowitz declared.

James M. Banner Jr., the vice chair of the National History Center's Board of Trustees, welcomed the participants, who included congressional staff members, members of the public, and historians. Bruce Craig, the executive director of the National Coalition for History, who moderated the seminar, introduced the speakers.

The seminar, which was held on May 23, 2005, in the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., was cosponsored by the American Historical Association, the Organization of American Historians, the Society of American Historians, and the National Coalition for History.

—PS