President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Social Security into law on this day in 1935 to provide seniors with basic income security after retirement, mitigating against the “vicissitudes and hazards of life.” Eighty-two years later, the program he created has kept several generations of seniors – and their families – out of poverty. In turn, the nation is very fortunate to have had several generations of Roosevelts dedicated to preserving Social Security.
Franklin Roosevelt’s son, Congressman James Roosevelt, Sr., founded the National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare in 1982 to protect the financial security, health, and well-being of current and future generations of Americans. FDR’s grandson, James (“Jim”) Roosevelt, Jr., carries on his family’s legacy as a leading healthcare advocate and vice-chair of the National Committee’s Advisory Board.
Last March, Jim Roosevelt sat down with National Committee President Max Richtman for a wide-ranging Facebook Live interview. We have included some highlights of that interview below as we look at the legacy of Social Security on its 82nd anniversary.
Jim’s grandfather, President Franklin Roosevelt, became inspired to create a national retirement insurance program after seeing older Americans relegated to the poor houses because they had no means of supporting themselves. “It tears my heart to see those old men and women there,” said then-Governor Roosevelt after visiting the poor houses of New York state. As Jim Roosevelt explained, FDR felt that seniors deserved an assurance of fundamental financial security.
He believed (and we still believe) that Social Security is basic to the lives of the American people. And he was very clear that it was a family program. It was created not only so that people, when they reach retirement age, have enough money for the basics of a decent life. It’s also so that their children don’t have to spend down their money to take care of them. – Jim Roosevelt
Working with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, FDR pushed the Social Security Act of 1935 through Congress at the height of the Great Depression. To some, it was counterintuitive that President Roosevelt put such a high priority on retirement insurance at a time when so many millions of Americans couldn’t find work. But Jim Roosevelt told us that FDR viewed retirement security and employment as inextricably linked.
People said to my grandfather, “Why are you worrying about people’s retirement when people need jobs?” And he said these are tied together. If people have jobs, they can pay into Social Security knowing that they’ll have benefits later on. Life is then worth living, work is worth doing. And I think that’s what has remained the vision for me, for my father, and for the National Committee over these past 30 years. – Jim Roosevelt
It was very important to President Roosevelt that Social Security be funded directly through workers’ payroll contributions. FDR said that payroll contributions would give retirees “the legal, moral, and political right” to collect their Social Security benefits. He knew that a perpetually self-funded program would guarantee Social Security’s endurance for generations to come, and protect the program from the whims of politicians who might seek to undermine it
The reason that Social Security is structured the way it is is so that nobody, just for political reasons, can cut Social Security out of the budget or out of the law. Because Social Security has its own dedicated income stream from the payroll tax, we don’t just trade if off against education or defense or other important things. My grandfather famously said, “With those taxes in there, no damn politician can ever scrap my Social Security program.” That’s as true today as it was in 1935. – Jim Roosevelt
President Roosevelt’s vision has most certainly endured. Today, Social Security provides some 61 million Americans and their families with basic financial security upon retirement or disability. For older Americans, Social Security can mean the difference between financial well-being and poverty. Two out of three seniors rely on Social Security for most of their income, and one-third of seniors depend on it for at least 90% of their income. Public polling consistently shows that Social Security enjoys overwhelming support from majorities of Americans across party lines.
Over the years, Social Security has been modified (with bipartisan support) to expand benefits and keep the system financially sound. This year, Social Security has come under new threat from budget hawks in the Trump administration and on Capitol Hill. But as generations of Roosevelts have shown us, Social Security is worth fighting for. On this, Social Security’s 82nd anniversary, we at the National Committee recommit ourselves to preserving this landmark program for current and future generations of Americans.
Watch our full interview with Jim Roosevelt on Facebook Live.