BC Expert: Social Security Act 80th Anniversary
PROFESSOR PATRICK J. MANEY, HISTORY DEPARTMENT, BOSTON COLLEGE
(617) 285-6431 (cell)
Prof. Maney is a political and presidential historian, with a particular focus on American history from 1865 to the present. He is the author of a biography of Franklin Delano Roosevelt titled The Roosevelt Presence: The Life and Legacy of FDR. He is working on a book on Bill Clinton’s presidency. Professor Maney has appeared on public television, C-SPAN, National Public Radio, and in Cognoscenti.
“The Social Security Act is the single most successful social program in American history,” says Boston College History Professor Patrick Maney, a political and presidential historian. “The most interesting is, it did not start out that way. When it passed in 1935, it fell far short of what President Franklin Roosevelt and a lot of liberals wanted. Roosevelt wanted Social Security to be a cradle to grave kind of insurance that would include not only old age pensions but also national health insurance.”
The American Medical Association lobby made sure the national health insurance didn’t happen but what did happen on August 14, 1935 was passage of a humane plan aimed at the elderly, the segment of the population hit the hardest during the Great Depression.
“If the elderly had any savings at all and were smart enough not to put in under the mattress, they put it in banks,” says Maney, an expert on the 20th century. “But in the early years of the Depression before we had the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), the banks went bankrupt and millions of Americans including millions of older Americans lost all of their savings. So you could have done everything right, saved your whole life, and still lost everything. So old people were just destitute; they worked their whole lives and got to be age 65 and they were going to spend whatever time they had left in poverty.”
Almost befitting the times, the Social Security Act was discriminatory as well.
“It excluded from coverage farm workers and domestic – or maids - and that was a concession to Southern white Democratic members of Congress who were not about to approve Social Security for black farm workers, or black domestic workers,” says Maney. “It was discriminatory by its nature.”
Maney says one aspect of the Act that’s often overlooked was the provision for jobless insurance.
“Before 1935, there was no such thing as unemployment compensation. That’s the other half of the Social Security Act. Now when you’re out of work, you can collect unemployment insurance until you find a job but there was nothing like that before 1935. So that’s a major part of it as well.”
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