Title: FDR’s Grandson Talks Social Security
Guest: James Roosevelt, Jr., Vice-Chair, NCPSSM Advisory Board
Release Date:  12/14/23



ANNOUNCER:  It’s You Earned This, the Social Security and Medicare podcast, brought to you by the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. And now your host, Walter Gottlieb.

HOST:  Hello, everybody. In a minute, we’re going to be joined by the grandson of this president who signed Social Security into law way back in 1935.

PRESIDENT FDR: “We can never ensure 100 percent of the population against 100 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 the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”

HOST:  That was the father of Social Security, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in August of 1935, as he signed the Social Security Act into law. And we have with us today his grandson, Jim Roosevelt, to talk about his grandfather’s legacy and the future of the agency that administers Social Security, the SSA. Hello, Jim.

GUEST:  Hello. It’s good to be with you.

HOST:  You too. And in addition to all that, Jim is vice chair of our advisory board here at the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. And also, Jim, your father, FDR’s son, Congressman James Roosevelt, founded our organization in 1982. Can you tell us why your father, Congressman James Roosevelt, felt the need for an organization to protect the legacy programs of the New Deal and the Great Society?

GUEST:  Yes. I discussed it with my father back in those days and throughout the rest of his life. And he very strongly felt that Social Security and Medicare needed an advocate that was not involved in any other policy, any other services to people, but simply advocating for the strengthening and the preservation of Social Security. And he saw this organization, National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare, as that vehicle.

HOST:  And here we are, 41 years later, fighting the good fight. So Jim, you were born after Franklin D. Roosevelt, your grandfather, passed away, but you knew your grandmother, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, pretty well. What do you remember about her?

GUEST:  Well, my grandmother, or grand-mère as we called her, she liked all of her grandchildren to call her by the French name that she learned when she studied in France as a child. She lived until I was a senior in high school. So I got to know her quite well. And even though I grew up in Los Angeles and she was based in New York, she was famous for traveling almost constantly. So we would see her four or five times a year at our house in Los Angeles. And in the summer, we would go and visit her in Hyde Park, New York, and sit around the swimming pool with her. And I was, somewhat precociously, very interested in talking some big issues with her. And I would just say that she was as dedicated as my father was to the preservation of Social Security because her husband, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had said when it was set up that by having people pay for it through the payroll tax, people would realize that it was a benefit that they had earned and no damn politician would take it away from them. Dwight Eisenhower said the same thing a few years later. But we see again and again, politicians, particularly Republicans, trying to cut Social Security.

HOST:  We sure do. And they’re giving us plenty to respond to, especially these days. And we’ll talk about that a little later. We have an initiative here at the National Committee to promote women’s retirement security named after your grandmother. It’s called Eleanor’s Hope. And you can find it on our main website at ncpssm.org or at eleanorshope.org. Your grandmother, for the rest of her life, was quite the champion of women’s retirement security, wasn’t she?

GUEST:  My grandmother was a great champion of women’s working conditions and rights, as well as their retirement security. She in fact really got involved in community and social services when the terrible fire occurred in the garment factory in lower Manhattan. And that just sort of crystallized her belief that women’s working conditions while they were working, and then leading a reasonable life in retirement, was very important to her.

HOST:  You’re talking about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York.

GUEST:  I am, yes.

HOST:  Oh, I didn’t know. So that was an impetus for her to get involved.

GUEST:  She and Frances Perkins, who was the Secretary of Labor, the first woman in a president’s cabinet, and the only person who served in all four terms in my grandfather’s cabinet, were united in that effort and in that inspiration.

HOST:  We did a profile piece on Frances Perkins a while ago, and we like to say that while your grandfather was the father of Social Security, she was kind of the mother of Social Security.

GUEST:  She was, you might even say, the godmother, because Frances Perkins was sort of the mother and my grandmother was the godmother.

HOST: There you go. That’s perfect. So I know you wanted to talk about the Social Security Administration today, and so do we. Unfortunately, the Social Security Administration, which is responsible for administering Social Security benefits, has had myriad problems for more than a decade now, and that’s a shame because as Mark Miller wrote in the New York Times recently, few government agencies touch the lives of more Americans than the Social Security Administration. It pays $1.4 trillion in benefits to more than 71 million people every year. It’s an extremely crucial agency to Americans, right, Jim?

GUEST:  Absolutely. And the problem is not in the structure of Social Security. Going back to when the second President Bush tried to privatize Social Security, but then continuing under President Trump, the Congress put in commissioners who really were not dedicated to the high level of service that Social Security had had up until about 10 or 12 years ago. And what they did was they cut the budget so much that there was no way that Social Security could hire the number of people it needed to offer the level of service that it traditionally had.

HOST:  Exactly. You could say the agency has been grossly underfunded starting with the Tea Party in 2011, and it has had a lot of trouble properly serving customers because of that, including long hold times on the 1-800 phone line, long lines at field offices and field office closures, and up to two-year delays in Social Security disability hearings. And thousands of disabled workers have actually died waiting for their cases to be adjudicated. But now, a new Social Security commissioner seems to be poised to be confirmed by the Senate. He is former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, and he would be the first confirmed Social Security chief nominated by a Democratic president since Bill Clinton was in office. Why is that? Why have the Democrats not had a confirmed commissioner in more than 20 years?

GUEST:  First of all, the budget cuts that took place at the time of the Tea Party elections really devastated the workforce. And up until that point, Social Security had the highest satisfaction rating among its employees of any government agency. Now it has the lowest. Because if you tell people you have this huge amount of work to do, and we’re not going to hire anybody to help you, they get very dissatisfied. So what happened in the last 20 years, 25 years really, is that because the Social Security commissioner comes up for reappointment up until very recently, at a separate time when the president is elected, the Social Security commissioner kept coming up when there was either a Republican president who was opposed to keeping Social Security strong, or a Republican Senate, which under Mitch McConnell particularly, would not bring a Democratic commissioner up for confirmation.

HOST:  That’s actually very interesting, Jim. Thank you for that history. Governor O’Malley is promising to bring his managerial experience as governor and as the mayor of Baltimore to radically improve customer service at the Social Security Administration, or SSA, and to shore up workplace morale, which has also been suffering. He has a big job ahead of him, Jim. Can he do it?

GUEST:  Well, I’m very enthusiastic about the nomination and hopeful confirmation. He has been recommended for confirmation by the Senate Finance Committee, including a number of Republican votes on that committee. It’s a majority of Democrats on the committee, but a number of Republicans saw that this needed to be done. So now, in a very different scenario, his nomination is going to come to the floor very soon, and I’m very enthusiastic because, yes, he was a great manager as mayor of Baltimore and governor of Maryland. Being from Baltimore, he actually knows many of the Social Security workers. Remember, the central office of Social Security is in Baltimore. So, he knows what needs to be done.

HOST:  And I want to go back to the funding issues because it plays into the challenges that he will have. Since 2011, congressional cuts to the agency’s customer service budget totaled 17% after inflation and staffing fell to a 25-year low last year. And at the same time, the number of beneficiaries that they need to service has risen by more than 20%. And the current budget battle in Congress could actually make this worse. The Biden administration requested $1.3 billion more for SSA, but House Republicans want to slash it by $250 million. Can O’Malley do what he wants to do without proper funding from Congress?

GUEST:  Well, if, as I expect will happen, and I hope will happen, Martin O’Malley becomes a confirmed commissioner, he’ll have a whole different clout in dealing with Congress on appropriating enough money to staff Social Security properly. And yes, there has been, of course, with our expanding population, a growth in the number of retirees receiving and applying for Social Security benefits. But the problem is even greater for disabled Americans who wait many, many months, even years to have their applications reviewed and approved.

HOST:  And as I mentioned before, I think in one year alone, recently, 10,000 of those disabled workers passed away waiting for a hearing.

GUEST:  That is correct. And ultimately, if they are approved posthumously, their estate can collect some of that money. But a lot of good that does them.

HOST:  Yeah, exactly. It’s a little too late for the actual disabled worker. Are you concerned about proposals by Republicans to cut Social Security — if not for today’s seniors, then for their children and grandchildren? Nikki Haley’s out there saying just that. ‘My kids aren’t going to need Social Security and, you know, not at the level that we’re getting it today. And they should wait longer to have to retire.’ And also is the proposed fiscal commission that Mike Speaker Mike Johnson wants to create one of those threats to Social Security.

GUEST:  So Nikki Haley and other so-called moderate Republicans say we’ll preserve benefits for people who are at or close to retirement age now, but we’ll cut them for our kids. That’s to my mind, that is crazy. Our kids are not going to have a lower cost of living than retirees do today. Social Security is an adequate benefit, but not a generous benefit. In fact, if anything, it should be increased, not cut for future generations. As for Speaker Johnson’s fiscal commission, the fiscal commissions are a black box so that politicians don’t have to take responsibility for what’s done. They were originated to close military bases so that politicians didn’t have to take responsibility for that. That’s one thing when you have a change in the way wars are fought and so on. Applying fiscal commissions to something like Social Security is a way of having elected officials not take responsibility for what they’re doing to people’s retirement and what they’re doing to their decent life if they have a disability. The fiscal commission is a terrible idea. The last time that was tried was about a dozen years ago. It was called the Simpson-Bowles Commission. Fortunately, it was set up in a way that the commission had to come to a unanimous decision and so it evaporated.

HOST:  And our president, Max Richman, recently wrote an op-ed in the Hill newspaper about this very thing, co-authored with Senator Tom Harkin, also on our advisory board, just like you. Do you think your grandfather, Franklin D. Roosevelt, would be worried about his legacy program at this point, given everything we just talked about?

GUEST:  My grandfather, FDR, would be fighting mad. He’d be fighting to have Congress keep its commitment to the American people for Social Security. He’d be fighting to elect people, as he did while he was president, elect people who supported looking out for Americans rather than for big money interests.

HOST:  Jim, I wish we had even more time because this has been really interesting. And of course, you have such a unique perspective, given your legacy and your involvement in our organization. And thank you for everything you do for the National Committee and for Social Security.

GUEST:  Well, you’re very welcome. It’s very near and dear to my heart and to my beliefs and my work.

HOST:  And for the latest news and analysis affecting American seniors, check out our blog at entitledtoknow.org. That’s entitledtoknow.org. And you can join us in our fight to preserve Social Security and Medicare by becoming a member of the National Committee. Visit ncpssm.org. That’s ncpssm.org to join us. See you next time. And remember: you earned this!