The XX Factor

Obama’s Wrong History of Social Security

In his press conference earlier this month announcing the compromise tax with the Republicans to extend the Bush-era tax cuts, President Obama tried to make the point that change happens incrementally. To illustrate this, he said that when FDR initially implemented Social Security, it “only affected widows and orphans.”

This could not be further from the truth. In 1935, when the Social Security Act was signed into law, it included the broad-based retirement program that we still have today.

Moreover, the program provided benefits to not only retirees, but included the death and survivorship programs that are vital to families hit by tragedy, as well as benefits for the unemployed. The Act’s program for widows and orphans, which has morphed over the years into what is now known as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, was only one, relatively small piece of the overall legislation.

The larger point is this: The passage of the Social Security Act was a massive accomplishment, not an incremental step forward. And the many history books that document its success point to the fact that it was broad based.

Initially, about half of all workers were covered by the unemployment insurance system and the old-age pension system. In the decades that followed, Congress amended the law to expand coverage to the women and African Americans who were disproportionately, excluded from coverage initially, not the other way around.

It’s disconcerting that the President does not understand this history. He talks about helping the middle class grow without giving accurate credit for how America developed broad-based economic security. FDR created a bold new program that provided real economic security-when families needed it most-to the majority of his voting constituents and helped to increase the numbers of the middle class.

The tax compromise is what it is. Extending unemployment benefits for another year was an important priority and will be good for the economy and those most affected by the Great Recession. However, while extending those benefits was important, this will not resolve the challenges facing today’s middle class, beset by decades of rising inequality and economic insecurity even before the Great Recession began.