How Historians Can Help Frame the Next Social Security Debate





Mr. DeWitt, a doctoral student in public policy history at the University of Maryland, is co-editor (with Daniel Beland and Edward D. Berkowitz) of Social Security: A Documentary Histor (Aug. 2007).

Having recently completed work on a documentary history of the Social Security program, several insights suggest themselves which might be useful in framing the (inevitable) future debates over Social Security policy.

The first and most salient realization is that to a remarkable degree the policy debates in Social Security seem to contain some hardy perennials.

For example, the Social Security trust funds and their ambiguous role as sources of program assets were contentiously debated virtually from the moment the ink dried on the Social Security Act of 1935. Many of the same shibboleths heard today (that the trust funds are “worthless IOUs” or that the assets in the funds have been misspent for other purposes) have been voiced for decades. Indeed, the landmark 1939 amendments* emerged from an advisory council appointed at the insistence of congressional Republicans who wanted to find ways to scale back the size of the expected trust fund build-up. At the same time, the Roosevelt Administration wanted to expand the social insurance system beyond the bare-bones retirement program created in the 1935 law, and the essence of the 1939 changes was that a political compromise was struck giving each side some of what they wanted.

Earlier generations of workers were also certain they would never see a dime of their promised benefits, just as today’s young workers assume this will happen to them. In fact, the program has thus far paid out over $9 trillion in benefits to over 200 million individuals, making these recurrent lamentations seem especially ahistorical.

Another prominent and recurring debate has been over tax rates and what portion of the program’s costs should come from current taxation or be deferred to future generations of taxpayers. This expresses itself in the pattern of trust fund build-ups and declines—in the degree to which the program is operated on a “pay-as-you-go” basis or uses the mechanism of the trust funds as a device for partially pre-funding future costs. In point of fact, the financing of the system has never been purely one or the other, but it has migrated toward one or the other end of this spectrum with each major set of legislative changes. But a fundamental policy choice presents itself in this regard, and it is destined to be debated over and over, as the proper balance here is a matter for periodic political recalibration.

There are other parts of Social Security’s story that are not recurring themes but are more like what Paul Pierson and other political scientists describe as “path dependencies.” For example, during the early decades of the program’s history, the emphasis was on program and policy expansion and the debates were usually over if or when particular occupational groups should be brought under the program’s coverage, or whether certain types of benefits should be added or made more generous. Once the program achieved its mature form in the mid-1970s, the debates shifted to issues of cost containment and policy restraint. We can usefully describe the history of the Social Security program as being composed of two broad periods: the era from 1935 through 1972, which was the Expansionary phase of the program; and the period since 1972, which has been by and large a period of Retrenchment.

The present debate about the future of Social Security is essentially one about financing, rather than a debate about coverage or benefits. This too is not new. Indeed, the current financing debate is the fourth in the program’s history—following similar debates in 1939, 1977 and 1983, each of which resulted in major legislative changes.

Those earlier episodes may contain cautionary insights for policymakers. Both of the major episodes of program scale-backs (in 1977 and 1983) occurred in the context of short-term financing crises. The present debate is over long-range financing, which may explain why there has been no major Social Security financing legislation since the amendments of 1983.

Another unique aspect of Social Security policymaking has been the role of periodic outside advisory councils in helping craft policy changes. Starting in 1934, administrations and/or the Congress from time to time created various advisory councils and commissions to make Social Security policy recommendations.

The central political idea behind all of the successful councils was to bring together representatives of the key stakeholders (and both political parties) and let them work through the construction of a policy consensus with which they could all live—working outside the pressures of the formal political arena. Their subsequent reports then became bright-line guides for the Congress in crafting politically viable legislation. When this pattern was followed, successful legislation usually resulted. When this formula is not followed (for example in President Bush’s 2001 Commission) legislative action is highly unlikely.

Finally, it is remarkable, but perhaps not too surprising, to see the degree to which the future of the Social Security system itself is a topic of public concern and political debate. In the early years of the program, the long-term political viability of the system was perhaps open to some doubt. But by the time President Eisenhower affirmed his administration’s commitment to the program in 1953, one would have thought the matter had been finally settled and that fundamental change would seem unlikely. Indeed, all presidents from FDR to George W. Bush have rhetorically reaffirmed the nation’s support for the program. As Ronald Reagan put it in signing the 1983 legislation: “This bill demonstrates for all time our nation’s iron-clad commitment to Social Security.” In fact, if one computes party support for the major Social Security legislation over the years (as we do in our book) one finds very similar numbers for Republicans and Democrats in Congress, both for expansions of the system and for cut-backs.

Even so, the topic of fundamental change in the Social Security system seems to have moved into the mainstream for the first time since the Act’s passage in 1935. The Bush Administration made Social Security a priority of the President’s second term (having initially planned to do so in the first term prior to the events of 9/11), but has thus far been unsuccessful in moving the Congress to legislative action. 

But this is a subject that is unlikely to go away. It may yet become an issue in the 2008 presidential campaign, but if not, it will certainly be an issue for the next President. It is not difficult to see why. There are two central reasons: because it’s where the money is, and because it is the linchpin in our nation’s system of retirement security.

The Social Security program is the largest single function in the federal government’s budget (accounting for about one-quarter of all expenditures). Indeed, the annual budget of the Social Security system is larger than the gross domestic product of all but about the dozen richest nations of the world. Despite its vast size, the latest report from the Social Security actuaries indicates that the system will run short of funds sometime around the year 2041, hence the necessity for eventual action.

At the time of the passage of Social Security in 1935 a majority of the elderly lived in economic dependency. Today, a self-reliant period of retirement is an expected and assumed phase of an ordinary life well lived. Central to that experience is the presence of Social Security. Nine out of ten elderly Americans collect Social Security and for one-third of them Social Security is virtually their entire retirement income; two-thirds depend on it for the majority of their retirement income. If Social Security were not on the scene, poverty among the elderly would once again be near 1935 levels.

Given all this, periodic debate about such a significant governmental undertaking is inevitable, perhaps even desirable.

Our modest ambition as historians of this program ought to be to provide a useful framing for those future policy debates. We should not necessarily aspire to the lofty role history is thought by some to play. The renowned French politician and historian of the 19th century, François Guizot, writing in 1829, could unblushingly say: “history makes the true philosopher, the one whose knowledge is most practically useful. . . . We have the field notes of those who have gone before us . . . . Thus we become gifted with second sight . . . we are seers, entitled to the appellation of wise. . .”

If historians cannot make future policymakers into seers, at least we might be able to provide them with a few additional tools as they feel their way to some greater wisdom about the future of Social Security.

*Social Security website: "The [1939] Amendments added two new categories of benefits: payments to the spouse and minor children of a retired worker (so-called dependents benefits) and survivors benefits paid to the family in the event of the premature death of a covered worker. This change transformed Social Security from a retirement program for workers into a family-based economic security program. The 1939 Amendments also increased benefit amounts and accelerated the start of monthly benefit payments to 1940."

Related Links

  • Rick Shenkman: When Did Social Security Become the Third Rail of American Politics?

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    Max J. Skidmore - 10/26/2007

    Mr. Gaston's rejoinder no doubt reflects his strong opinion, but isn't supported by evidence. Moreover, regarding his point 3, there is no means testing of Social Security benefits.


    Robert Lee Gaston - 10/25/2007

    1. Most middle class workers, especially non-union service sector workers, have grown up looking to IRAs and 401Ks to provide for their retirement. It is going to be more and more difficult to scare people away from privatization.

    2. A great many people who had never contributed to the system received its benefits during the period of expansion that was described in the paper. A great many of the same middle class workers who look to their IRAs and 401Ks for retirement, are beginning to see the program as an extension of the welfare program, and therefore, just another tax that needs to be cut.

    3. The dual track of increasing the dollar amount of income taxed, and means testing benefits will further undercut political support for the program.

    4. The days of congress being able to slip through silent tax increases through withholding increases may soon be coming to an end. If the “new media” starts treating congress’s attempts to “reform” the system the same way they treated congress’s attempt to “reform” the immigration system your debate may come sooner than you think.

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