America Before Social Security

Eighty-three years ago on Aug. 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act as a safeguard "against the hazards and vicissitudes of life." 

This historic law created what would become the life line of many Americans and one of the most popular social insurance programs in the country. 

Social Security, administered by the Social Security Administration, helps ensure our economic security as we age through payroll taxes paid by us and our employers. The program ensures that after a lifetime of work, we can retire with dignity.

All of us are grateful we have this kind of social insurance program – Social Security singlehandedly keeps 22 million Americans out of poverty. We are well off today because generations before us demanded that our government do something to save us from poverty when we get old.  

They would know. They lived through it. 

Here’s what happened in America before Social Security came along: 

  • America changed drastically by the end of World War I in 1918. From a primary agricultural society, America became urbanized and industrialized. By the time the Great Depression hit, more Americans depended on wages more than ever before. 
  • Between 1929 and 1932, national income dropped by 43%. By 1932, unemployment reached 34% for the nonagricultural workforce. 34%!
  • By the mid-1930’s, millions of American saw their lifetime savings wiped out.  
  • At the height of the Depression, many American seniors were in extreme poverty. One-third to one half of seniors depended on family or friends for financial support. 
  • Relief organizations at the time were mainly financed by charity and local funds and could not even begin to respond to the widespread hardship brought on by the Depression. 
  • By 1934, even though many states provided a small pension for their seniors – an average of $19.74 a month – states were forced to cut these benefits to spread cash to other programs. 
  • The conditions were so desperate that the American public demanded a national plan to deal with this serious issue. Several proposals for some form of social insurance were floated. 
  • In June 1934, President Franklin Roosevelt issued an executive order establishing a Cabinet-level Committee on Economic Security to be chaired by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, who was tasked with developing long-term proposals to prevent economic insecurity. 
  • Among other things, the committee developed a proposal for compulsory, contributory insurance for seniors, which became part of the Social Security Act that Roosevelt signed into law in 1935. 

Keep Social Security strong 

Considering the widening wealth gap and stagnant wages the past several decades, Social Security is important now more than ever. As an American, it’s our duty to protect this important program for us, our children, and grandchildren. 

Our union is proud to represent SSA employees who play a key role in helping American seniors retire with dignity. To help make sure Social Security does what it was intended to do, our union: 

  • Opposes any cuts to Social Security benefits. 
  • Demands that all Social Security offices remain open to provide access to all and better serve the American people. Closing offices mean cutting off access to the benefits we are entitled under the law. 
  • Supports a bill introduced by Sen. Bernie Sanders that would prevent future closures of Social Security offices nationwide.  

Retiring and want to join in our fight? 

Your partnership with your union doesn't have to end when you retire. Join AFGE Retirees and fight for what we stand for. Join us today! 


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