Guest Blogger: James Roosevelt, Jr. President and CEO of Tufts Health Plan Former Associate Commissioner of Retirement Policy for the Social Security Administration Co-Chair of President Obama’s Transition Team for Social Security
Seventy-five years ago this month, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, spoke these words:
"We can never insure one-hundred percent of the population against one-hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life. But we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against … poverty-ridden old age. This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built, but is by no means complete.... It is...a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide for the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness."
My grandfather uttered these words on August 14, 1935, on the proud occasion of his signing the Social Security Act into law. They expressed a fundamental belief shared by him and my grandmother that all people should be free from fear of want and destitution. My grandparents possessed an almost boundless sense of optimism in the American people; freed from our fears, they had faith that we could move mountains. Thus, in 1933 President Roosevelt summoned the courage of the American people with the immortal words: “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
While this anniversary is an occasion for celebration, I am also deeply troubled by the torrent of distortions, deceptions and falsehoods being unleashed by the enemies of Social Security. Their strategy is as simple as it is reprehensible: sow enough concern and fear about the program – fears that Social Security is not working, is bankrupting the country and cannot be counted on in the future – and you can convince people of the need for radical solutions.
While there are currently no frontal assaults on Social Security akin to what President George W. Bush unleashed in 2005, there are more insidious dangers. There are ominous signs that the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform (better known as the deficit commission) has set its sights on Social Security. It is deeply disturbing that the co-chairman of that commission, former Senator Alan Simpson, has been using this platform to put forward the same baseless claims about the program: that it’s “insolvent, it’s paying out more than it’s taking in” or “there is no surplus in there,” “there” being the Social Security Trust Fund.
Fear, my grandfather said, is “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” I believe that if we hold the distortions, deceptions and falsehoods up to the light of truth, we can convert retreat into advance.
The truth about Social Security is that it has contributed to the financial wellbeing of almost every American family. It is completely solvent today because it has a dedicated income stream that covers its costs, and it is actuarially sound. Moreover, it will remain solvent for decades to come, with only minor adjustments. It has consistently run a surplus.
The point is that Social Security should be "off the table" in the deficit commission's deliberations.
As Nancy Altman wrote in her book, The Battle for Social Security
, “Armed with the proper insight and understanding, we Americans can assert our will and demand that the program envisioned by Franklin Roosevelt remain his enduring legacy.”
You can watch James Roosevelt's full address at the National Press Club marking Social Security's 75th anniversary here.