The Social Security Act Turns Eighty Today: A Wolfsonian-FIU Library Reflection

Today marks the eightieth anniversary of the signing by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935. To mark the occasion, today’s blog post will consider the origins and history of that federal program that has benefited many millions of Americans over the span of eight decades.

Gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca

It is worth noting that the idea for a national social insurance plan did not originate solely with the Roosevelt Administration. Then, as now, the prevailing economic climate and presidential politics played important roles in shaping social legislation. The Wall Street Crash of October 1929 and the resultant Great Depression had thrown one-quarter of the American workforce into the ranks of the unemployed.


Illustration by Giacomo Patri (1898-1978) from his White Collar: Novel in Linocuts

The Wolfsonian-FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

The bank failures of the early 1930s, further exacerbated the crisis by stripping away the life savings of millions of older Americans.


The Wolfsonian-FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

Many of the post-depression generation, if we think back at all on the banking crisis, likely remember the actor Jimmy Stewart staving off a panic and bank run in Frank Capra’s Christmas holiday classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.

During the early years of the depression, then President Herbert Hoover believed that it was not the responsibility of the federal government to provide relief, but neither the states nor religious and volunteer charities were up to the challenge. While seventeen northern states adopted varying forms of old age pension laws by 1932, only about 3% of the elderly population benefited from such programs, and nearly ninety percent of these resided in California, Massachusetts, or New York, the home state of Hoover’s Democratic challenger, Franklin Roosevelt. Not surprisingly, in the November elections of 1932, President Hoover was turned out of office in a landslide decision.


Gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio Luca

In 1933, sixty-six year old Long Beach, California resident and public health officer, Francis Everett Townsend (1867-1960) found himself out of work, and, like so many other elderly folk, without any savings to depend upon.


“Social Security” print by Stefan Hirsch

The Wolfsonian-FIU, Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Collection

In September of that year, Townsend penned a letter to the editor of the Long Beach Press-Telegram promoting an old age pension plan. The Townsend Plan, as it would be called, advocated a 2% national sales tax to fund a $200 per month pension for every citizen aged sixty and over, provided they had no criminal record, were retired from work, and agreed to spend all of the money they received each month in the United States. The plan was thus designed to encourage older people to retire, to provide more work opportunities for younger people, and to stimulate the domestic economy. Townsend’s Old Age Revolving Plan garnered considerable support, given that in 1934 more than half of the nation’s elderly population were unable to support themselves. By 1935, the doctor had attracted 2,200,000 devotees and spawned 7,000 Townsend Clubs, all urging the government to adopt the old age pension plan.

XC2012_07_1_059Caricature of Francis Townsend by Will H. Chandlee, published in Mother Goose in Washington.
Gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio-de Luca

Even as the “grassroots” Townsend movement was gaining momentum, Louisiana governor, populist, and Democratic presidential aspirant, Huey Pierce Long (1893-1935) was making headlines (and waves) denouncing rich banking interests and advocating his own “Share the Wealth” program as “the only defense this country’s got against communism.” His plan advocated a radical restructuring of the economy, capping and taxing personal fortunes with a progressive tax code, funding public works projects, providing a guaranteed minimum family income, free education, veteran’s benefits, and old-age pensions. When the U.S. Senate rejected one of his redistribution of wealth proposals, Long infamously rebuked them, telling them that a “mob is coming to hang the other ninety-five of you damn scoundrels and I’m undecided whether to stick here with you or go out and lead them.”

Mitchell Wolfson, Jr. Loan

By 1935, the Democratic challenger that President Roosevelt uncharitably described as one of the “most dangerous men in America” commanded a radio audience of 25,000,000 listeners, and had attracted 7,500,000 members to 27,000 Share the Wealth Clubs operating under the motto “Every Man a King.”

Long’s Communist detractors seized on his campaign song and slogan and lampooned it in their efforts to paint him as ingenuous.

Gift of Francis Xavier Luca

Many historians have argued that it was the threat posed by a Long presidential candidacy that was responsible for President Roosevelt’s shift to the left in 1935. In fact, Roosevelt admitted that many of the second wave of New Deal initiatives that year (including the Wealth Tax, Works Progress Administration, National Youth Administration, and the Social Security Act) had been enacted in an attempt to “steal Long’s thunder,” to co-op Townsend’s supporters, and to silence critics like the popular “Radio Priest” Father Charles Coughlin.

Caricature of the “Radio Priest” Father Coughlin by Will Chandlee, published in Mother Goose in Washington.
Gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio-de Luca

Just one month after announcing his bid for the presidency, an assassin’s bullet claimed the life of the forty-two year old Huey Long, thus ending any serious Democratic or third party challenge to Roosevelt’s reelection in 1936. But the retirement proposals put forward by Francis Townsend and Huey Long did find life in Roosevelt’s second New Deal, with the passage of his Old Age Assistance (or Social Security) program.

Even Roosevelt’s less ambitious plan was greeted with great skepticism and opposition in the Senate. The Democratic Senator from Oklahoma, Thomas Gore, grilled Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins during a Finance Committee Hearing, asking her “Isn’t this socialism?” and responding to her denial, by insisting again, “Isn’t this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?”

Caricature of Frances Perkins by Will H. Chandlee, published in Mother Goose in Washington.
Gift of Francis Xavier Luca and Clara Helena Palacio-de Luca

Even after the passage of the Social Security Act in August 1935, Townsend and others continued to lobby, demonstrate, and push for more generous benefits and provisions.


Gift of Christopher DeNoon

Social Security passed its first great hurdle in 1937 when the conservative members of the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the act. In 1939, spouses and minor children, and the survivors of retired workers were added as beneficiaries to the original program; the following year the first monthly benefit check was mailed off, providing just a little bit more security for the average American family.


“Security for the Family,” a watercolor mural study by Seymour Fogel (1911-1984)
The Wolfsonian-FIU, purchased with funds donated by Mitchell Wolfson, Jr.

It is ironic that today’s polls indicate that a majority of Americans fear that the Social Security system they have paid into will not be there to help them through their own “golden years.” To this one can only respond using the phrase from President Roosevelt’s 1933 inaugural address: “So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance….”

~ by "The Chief" on August 14, 2015.

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