The History of Social Security: Facts & Timeline

Instructor: Christopher Prokes

Chris is an instructional designer and college faculty member. He has a Master's Degree in Education and also umpires baseball.

Social Security is a shared-responsibility program designed to help those who are no longer working or cannot work. Learn about this program through a timeline and fact set in this lesson. Determine what you learned with a short quiz at the end.

A Multi-faceted Program

Consider your recent television viewing: Did you see frequent commercials for retirement or disability plans? Shockingly, there was a time that such things didn't exist. In fact, it took a major depression and the federal government to create a feasible system. Signed into law by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1935, Social Security is a federal program providing benefits to those who are retired, disabled, or maintain other needs. It is a joint responsibility of all American workers (except government employees - they pay into their own retirement systems) to pay into Social Security to benefit themselves and others. The program has seen many major changes over its history. Recall older relatives of your youth: they usually didn't work anymore and loved to tell 'back in my day' stories (which always seemed to change each time they were told!). Brace yourself as we examine the storied history of Social Security.

You Wanted to Stop Working?

Historically, most workers did not stop toiling; many stopped because they died the day prior. The thought of one day not working and still receiving income was laughable. Europeans in the late Middle Ages started to change this by creating groups to protect their members' economic interests and keep them afloat, since at certain times in history you could be jailed for having debt. That means today most of us with any payment (house, car, student loan) would be incarcerated. Would you?

As the Industrial Revolution swept the U.S., some companies created pension plans to provide for older workers (though it was more common for a company to simply dismiss an older worker to avoid paying out their pension).

FACT: Don't let this fool you - only fifteen percent of companies offered one.

When the Great Depression hit, people lost everything and the number of poor skyrocketed like the facts of one of grandpa's tales. It's also noteworthy that people were living longer, so there were more years of not being able to work. The unemployed masses were tired of having no economic security, so they protested.

Long lines for work and food were common in the Great Depression
Great Depression

FACT: Presidential candidates, including Louisiana's Huey Long, ran on platforms of early Social Security versions.

After years of economic problems and failed solutions, the Social Security Act of 1935 was signed by President Roosevelt and the story's plot thickened.

Social Security: A Fairy Tale

FACT: Social Security started as a retirement program. It has evolved greatly since its origins.

The benefit of Social Security is that it attempts to make people's outlooks fair. It provides retirement payments to those no longer working. It takes care of dependents, survivors, and those disabled who cannot work. It has been changed to meet the needs of the times.

President Roosevelt signs Social Security into law
FDR Signs

FACT: Social Security has adapted to combat fraud, require citizenship for benefits, consider criminal history, and increase payments based on cost of living adjustments (COLA).

Most importantly, the program deals with the issue of a lack of economic outlook for citizens. As life expectancy increases, there are more non-working years for retirees than in the past, so there is a lengthier period for needing security.

FACT: In its first year, $1.2 million dollars was paid out to 53,000 people; In 2008, over $43 billion dollars went to 7.5 billion. Over time, $11.3 trillion dollars have been paid.

The Story Ends?

Today, Social Security is one of the largest government programs taking care of Americans. Upon birth every citizen is given a social security number. Upon starting a job, a percentage of a person's income is paid into a Social Security account. This money can earn interest and other adjustments, and employers also kick in funds. Nearly everyone pays, with government workers excluded (they pay into their own retirement programs). When one retires, reaches age 65, or becomes disabled, they can draw these funds as income. While one is working, they are effectively paying for those who are retired or disabled, and when the payers' time comes, those still working will be taking care of them.

Example of a Social Security card
Social Security Card

FACT: To date, over 450 million Social Security numbers have been issued. They are never reused.

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