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The Roots Of Social Security

Creator: Frances Perkins (author)
Date: October 23, 1962
Source: Social Security Online History Page

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-Delivered at Social Security Administration Headquarters -- Baltimore, Maryland, October 23, 1962.-


I must say I feel very much at home even though I just arrived. I feel at home because the Social Security Administration has, ever since it was established, been a sort of special concern of mine, although by the chicanery of politics it was not placed in the Department of Labor. I, of course, thought it should be.


As a matter of fact, one of the reasons I feel so deeply involved with the Social Security Administration is that even though it was not in the Department of Labor when it was first established, the Department of Labor had to carry it the way you carry a dependent child. It didn't have any money. That was so unfortunate. And we didn't have very much either. What we did, however, was to provide the Social Security Administration with offices in the Department of Labor Building. I even gave to the Chairman of the Social Security Board (as it was called in those days) the large, handsome, red-upholstered, high-back chair out of my own office so that he could look like a king. I didn't have to keep on looking like a queen. I found the chair somewhat uncomfortable so I made the sacrifice.


The whole Department did the same kind of thing. We gave them our best statisticians. We gave them the best of everything including Arthur Altmeyer, who was the Assistant Secretary of Labor and my real right hand, and without whom I felt very lost. It showed that we put our best people in there on loan, and we carried it for the first year and made it look like a going concern. In fact, it became a going concern in an extraordinarily short time.


When I asked what I was to speak about today, the suggestion was made I talk about the roots, or beginnings, of the Social Security Act. So I have thought about the roots. I suppose the roots -- the idea that we ought to have a systematic method of taking care of the material needs of the aged -- really springs from that deep well of charitableness which resides in the American people, and the efforts and the struggles of charity workers and social workers to handle the problems of people who were growing old and had no adequate means of support. Out of this impulse to be kind to the poor sprang, I suppose, a mulling of ideas about social insurance for the aged. But those people who were doing it didn't know that it was social insurance. They just kept thinking that something definite, something that people could look forward to, would be a great asset and a great assistance to them in their work. Even De Tocqueville, in his memoirs of his visit to America, mentioned he thought was a unique state of mind of the American people: That they were so honestly concerned about their poor and did so much for them personally. It was not an organization; it was not a national action; it was not a State action; it was not Government. It was personal action that De Tocqueville mentioned as being characteristic of the American people. They were so generous, so kind, so charitably disposed.


Well, I don't know anything about the times in which De Tocqueville visited America. That was long ago, and I know little about the psychological state of mind of the people of this country at that time. But I do know that at the time I came into the field of social work, these feelings were real. It was surprising what we were able to do through volunteer work -- by the volunteer support of organizations who help the poor; and particularly the aged poor. Just look over the country At the old ladies' homes and the old couples' homes and the old members' homes that sprang up because aged people had necessities that had to be met. In each case, somebody got money together and established these homes. And life went on for the aged, after a fashion, as recipients of a kind of charity. These things have been going on for years.




But actually, of course, the beginning of widespread interest in Social Security through the use of an insurance technique began in a serious way shortly before the great depression of 1929. When I say shortly, I mean a couple of years. It had begun as an academic subject; it was discussed by highbrows, not by politicians. It was a possible thing, you know.


We knew something about social insurance in this country -- a very little -- by virtue of workmen's compensation legislation which is, of course, a form of social insurance. And that was all we knew about insuring against a known hazard through payment, by persons exposed to that hazard, into a fund from which those few could be compensated who had the particular accident that was described in the law.


Of course, workmen's compensation met great opposition when the agitation for it began in 1908 -- and that was already late in our social development. They had it in Germany, in England, and in Denmark and the other Scandinavian countries for a long time. Americans going to Europe had particularly observed the German system which, in the usual German way, was much more thorough and logical than English or Scandinavian systems, although they all worked very well.

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