At the venerable age of 80 Social Security keeps up with the times

The 80th anniversary of Social Security completes the trifecta of progressive federal legislation that has changed the lives of millions and the social fabric of the nation; other monumental legislation we commemorate this summer include the 25th anniversary of the Americans with Disabilities Act and the 50th anniversary of Medicare. (

Truth to tell, Social Security is so woven into the lives of every American that we take it for granted, fail to consider the path that led to this monumental legislation and to appreciate ways in which Social Security has adjusted, adapted and weathered eight turbulent decades.

Social Security emerged from the darkest days of the Depression, initiated by FDR, implemented in part by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins) Perkins, who harbored some misgivings, observed later, when the dust had begun to settle, that “it is difficult now to understand fully the doubts and confusions in which we were planning this great new enterprise.”

Conservatives resisted, objecting to the expansion of the federal government and “the inevitable abandonment of private capitalism.” Playing to Americans’ premonitions of war, they spared no effort in their campaign to kill the concept; warning Americans “the lash of the dictator will be felt.” They fueled the fears by threatening the body politic that “this bill opens the door and invites the entrance into the political field of a power so vast, so powerful as to threaten the integrity of institutions and to pull the pillars of the temple down upon the heads of our descendants.”

In spite of the skeptics and Americans’ predisposition to a spirit of individualism, FDR persisted – persevered. His opponents caved, ultimately voting for the legislation that Roosevelt signed into law on August 14, 1935.

The 1935 legislation has been amended countless times in the intervening years. Some useful resources that offer context and trace the evolution of Social Security over the past eight decades:

There’s a great timeline of developments and changes on the SSA website at

The Wikipedia entry on the Social Security Administration offers a useful summary with copious links to original sources.

For a quick synopsis of Social Security beneficiaries as of May 2015, check this simple but revelatory chart. (

Needless to say, the digital world is replete with resources on the history, statistics, social and political impact of Social Security. For a quick synopsis of eight decades of SSA, the federal agency has created a convenient summary of highlights available at

If you prefer video, you may want to view this April 2015 documentary produced and available online from the Social Security Administration. This is actually a history of social insurance, placing 21st Century Social Security in the historic context of which is the primary manifestation.

As we stumble our way into an interminable campaign season it is probably a good idea to have a grasp of how we as a nation have struggled with hard times, personal needs, and social justice over the decades. We are not the first Americans to face tough choices – learning from history could possibly lead to informed decisions that are as wise as they are just. Though conditions evolve, the idea of progress remains a human aspiration and a social/political challenge.

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