Today in Civil Rights History: Anniversary of the Social Security Act

Categories: News, Seniors/Social Security

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law, providing benefits for the elderly, women and children who had lost their family incomes, people with disabilities, and unemployed people.  The Act was part of his New Deal, a broad plan to reform American society and relieve the hardships of the Great Depression.

During the Great Depression, the unemployment rate skyrocketed and the banking system collapsed, leaving many people with no means of support.  In 1933, 25 percent of all American workers were unemployed, up from three percent in 1929, and over 40 percent of banks in the United States closed. 

As banks failed, people’s life savings were lost.  From 1930 to 1933, nine million savings accounts were completely wiped out and approximately 1.3 billion dollars  — about 16.8 billion in today’s dollars — were lost

In the midst of widespread financial disaster, President Roosevelt advocated federal reforms to alleviate suffering and provide a buffer for those in particularly difficult situations. The Social Security Act was a critical part of these reforms.  It created many of the best known federal social programs, including Social Security, or old-age insurance; Unemployment insurance; and the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program (commonly known as “welfare”).

Social Security as established in 1935 was limited in comparison to its modern form.  Not only were monetary benefits considerably less than they are today, but the system focused on a White male working population, excluding half of working women and almost two-thirds of Blacks.  Currently, both husbands and wives receive spousal benefits and dependent children receive survivor benefits if a parent dies.

Since 1935, Social Security has undergone numerous revisions and has greatly expanded from its original form to provide increased benefits and more equal coverage.  Most notably, Aid to Families with Dependent Children was restructured under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program in 1996, and President Lyndon Johnson expanded Social Security in 1965 by creating Medicare and Medicaid.