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Social Security's Humble Origins (Washington Monthly)

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pinto Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sat Dec-11-10 01:32 PM
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Social Security's Humble Origins (Washington Monthly)
Steve Benen
Dec. 12, 2010

To bolster his case, the president noted, "This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans. You did not qualify. And yet now it is something that really helps a lot of people. When Medicare was started, it was a small program. It grew. Under the criteria that you just set out, each of those were betrayals of some abstract ideal."

To be sure, the president was overstating matters -- Social Security did more than affect "widows and orphans" at the time of its passage. Paul Krugman is troubled that "Obama doesn't know this history."

I'm loath to disagree with Krugman, and it's clear that the president's assessment was at best incomplete, but my read on social insurance history is slightly different.

No self-respecting liberal today would support Franklin Roosevelt's original Social Security Act. It excluded agricultural workers -- a huge part of the economy in 1935, and one in which Latinos have traditionally worked. It excluded domestic workers, which included countless African Americans and immigrants. It did not cover the self-employed, or state and local government employees, or railroad employees, or federal employees or employees of nonprofits. It didn't even cover the clergy. FDR's Social Security Act did not have benefits for dependents or survivors. It did not have a cost-of-living increase. If you became disabled and couldn't work, you got nothing from Social Security.

And why was it so limited? Because Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to cut deals with conservatives -- many of whom were motivated by nothing more than racism -- in order to get the legislation passed. FDR knew he was betraying his principles and even some of his own supporters at the time, but he considered the goal of getting Social Security in place paramount, even if it was incomplete, even if it left Americans in need out.

At the time, The Nation ran scathing pieces against Roosevelt and the Social Security, condemning the "betrayal," and accusing FDR's White House of possibly dealing "a death blow" to social-insurance movement "for many years."

Under the circumstances, this history seems relevant.

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