Social Security Turns Eighty-One: Working Better Than Ever For America

On August 14, eighty-one years ago, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 into law. Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt's close confidante, his Secretary of Labor, and the chair of his interagency task force that developed the Social Security legislation, wrote that Roosevelt "always regarded the Social Security Act as the cornerstone of his administration and, I think, took greater satisfaction from it than from anything else he achieved on the domestic front."

He would take even more satisfaction and pride today. In honor of Social Security's 81st birthday, Social Security Works just released a series of reports showing how amazingly well the program works and how extremely important it is for each of the fifty states, the District of Columbia, all six of the U.S. territories, and, indeed, the nation as a whole. These reports complement our other series of reports, showing how well Social Security works for all Americans no matter how you group them, how Social Security works for veterans, children, the middle class, people of color, the LGBT community, people with disabilities, and women.

These reports show how vital our Social Security system is for all of us. Social Security provides the majority of income for two out of three retirees and seven out of ten people with disabilities. It provides virtually all of the income for one out of three seniors and people with disabilities. It lifts over 20 million people -- including over a million children -- out of poverty and lessens the depth of poverty for millions more. It boosts local economies because the benefits tend to be spent locally and immediately, and it stabilizes the economy during economic downturns.

When Franklin Roosevelt signed Social Security into law 81 years ago, he explained:

This law represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means completed.

Responding to his challenge to build on the cornerstone he set down 81 years ago, today's Democratic Party is wisely calling for the expansion of Social Security. The Party recognizes that expanding Social Security is a solution to a number of challenges facing the nation, including a looming retirement income crisis, perilous and rising income and wealth inequality, and the financial squeeze confronting working families.

The Democratic presidential standard bearer, Secretary Hillary Clinton, has repeatedly called for expanding, never cutting Social Security, most recently in the major economic address she delivered on August 11. Consistent with her view, the Democratic Platform proclaims clearly and forcefully:

We will fight every effort to cut, privatize, or weaken Social Security... Democrats will expand Social Security... and we will make sure Social Security's guaranteed benefits continue for generations by asking those at the top to pay more.

In sharp contrast and despite Social Security's tremendous importance and success over the last 81 years, the Republican Platform calls, in only thinly veiled language, for cutting and privatizing Social Security -- in short, dismantling it.

This is a radical position, at odds with the overwhelming majority of Americans, including conservative Republicans and Tea Party members. It is also at odds with past Republican leaders. President Eisenhower, for example, proposed and presided over expanding Social Security. He explained,

This Administration's strong support of the social security program was demonstrated by the broad expansion and improvements enacted in 1954 at my recommendation. The 1954 Amendments, which extended coverage of the program to millions of additional persons and included higher benefits for all who were then or who would become beneficiaries, have had a major impact in bringing greater security to our people.

Similarly, President Nixon proposed and succeeded in expanding Social Security. In a special message to Congress calling for expanding benefits and protecting them against inflation, Nixon proclaimed,

This nation must not break faith with those Americans who have a right to expect that Social Security payments will protect them and their families.

Like so many Republican leaders before him President George H.W. Bush, in his 1990 State of the Union Address, vowed,

And there's one thing I hope we will be able to agree on. It's about our commitments. I'm talking about Social Security. To every American out there on Social Security, to every American supporting that system today, and to everyone counting on it when they retire, we made a promise to you, and we are going to keep it.

But today's Republicans are of a different stripe. They vaguely and euphemistically talk about "saving" and "strengthening" Social Security, but their Platform and Party leadership make crystal clear that they will cut and dismantle Social Security, if they have a chance.

On this 81st anniversary of Social Security, those who have a stake in Social Security - all of us - should vote accordingly. Although many issues divide us, Social Security unites us - and for good reason: Our Social Security system represents the best values of our nation: working hard and contributing; rewarding that hard work, engaging in self-help and mutual aid; respecting the dignity of everyone; caring for our parents, children, and neighbors; managing resources prudently; and sharing risks as well as responsibilities.

The best birthday present we can give Social Security and, indeed, ourselves, is to vote for and elect a president dedicated to expanding, never cutting, Social Security. There is only one candidate who is so dedicated in today's race. That candidate is Secretary Hillary Clinton.

The best companion birthday present is to vote for and elect senators and members of the House of Representatives who, like Clinton, are committed to building on Social Security's strong foundation, by expanding, never cutting our vital and successful Social Security system.

Together, through our votes, we can succeed in making Social Security even stronger, more protective, and more adequate in the future. That is an appropriate gift for Social Security's eighty-first birthday, a gift that benefits our families, our communities, our nation, and indeed each and every one of us.