This August marked the 75th anniversary of the signing of the Social Security Act by President Franklin Roosevelt. In those 75 years Social Security has gone from being a financial “safety net” for older Americans to the “third rail” of politics, a program so sacred that any attempt to change it would meet with certain political death.
Government retirement benefits were not a new idea. Germany introduced old-age social insurance in 1889 under Chancellor von Bismarck and in 1908 Great Britain instituted pensions that did not require contributions by the participants. The first old-age pension bill was actually introduced in Congress in 1909 and public pensions became a central issue in political battles between labor and business throughout the 1920’s. A number of states already had contributory pensions for public employees, beginning with Massachusetts in 1911.
Of course, much has changed in those 75 years. Life expectancy in 1935 was the early 60’s and is now approaching 80, while full retirement age is only now on its way to age 67 from the original age 65. In the early 1950’s there were ten contributing workers for every Social Security recipient; there are now only three workers per recipient and the trend continues down.
The 2010 Annual Report from the Trustees of the Social Security trust fund acknowledges the growing problems. Expenditures will exceed tax receipts in 2010 by $41 billion due to higher unemployment, lower payroll taxes and more people filing for benefits because they can’t find a job. This is the first deficit since 1983, when an increase in payroll taxes was supposed to fix the system forever. An improving economy will hopefully restore the program back to a surplus by 2014, only to see all trust fund reserves exhausted by 2037. At that point tax income would be sufficient to pay about 75% of scheduled benefits through 2084. In the meantime, all sorts of fixes are being discussed, including higher taxes, reduced benefits, increased retirement age, “needs testing” to grant benefits only to those in need and individual retirement accounts.
Needless to say, emotions run high regarding Social Security and there is no clear consensus on how to deal with it. Consider these observations on the general idea of social insurance.
“Under our present medical and hygienic system human life in the future will be greatly extended beyond my present age. . . . people will have more time for leisure and self-improvement, including recreation furnished by the government to all classes free, including cash pensions . . .
When the above pension plan is in full swing and work becomes a mere pastime and everybody goes out to the “high places” to cavort part of the day and spend the nights in road-houses and pavilions of pleasure, as was common in the days of Pompeii and Rome. We old fellows who believe in honest labor and the building of human governments, for the safety of democracy, will feel like old fogies in the business arena. In the minds of many people in this generation work is looked upon as a punishment. People are ashamed to put on working clothes. Work has lost its place in the present economy of things, in our present day program.”
This letter was written to his eight children by James Miller Creighton, my wife’s great-grandfather, on his 78th birthday. That was in September, 1934, even before Roosevelt’s call to Congress for legislation to provide assistance for the unemployed, aged and physically handicapped.
J. M. Creighton was one of 13 children in a poor family in Nova Scotia. He became a cabinet maker’s apprentice at a wage of ten cents a week; it was said he saved eight cents of every dime. He worked his way to Philadelphia on a fishing boat and then walked to Charlottesville. J.M. took a job as a maintenance man at the University of Virginia, was accepted as a student and earned his degree in architecture at the age of 21. He heard there was a hotel being built in Denver, so he walked to Chicago, finally dipped into his meager savings to buy a horse, and made his way to Denver. After some success as a builder, J.M. made his way to Phoenix and established himself as a contractor in 1881.
J. M.’s experiences and opinions can easily be dismissed as being from another time; after all, his journey was exceptional by any standard and sometimes there are simply no jobs to be had. But the basic principles that drove J. M. – discipline, hard work, thrift, lifelong learning, even taking some risk – are still available, even if in a far different context. If those principles cease to be important, no program will provide long-term security.
Could it be true that the more things change, the more they stay the same?