`Bitter dependency'

Editorial Notebook

February 19, 2005|By Will Englund

FROM JANUARY through August, 1935, The Sun gave close coverage to the fevered debate over the Social Security Act. These were the months when the system that President Bush now wants to change was called into being, and in some sense it was a revolutionary moment. With this bill, the New Deal -- which is to say, the federal government -- reached into the lives of virtually every American. But how did the nation see it back then? What was Social Security expected to accomplish?

A search through the files of this newspaper turns up barely a word about any actual people who might have stood to benefit from a federal pension system; maybe journalism was less sentimental in those days. Almost all the articles were from Washington, and all were about the politics. And yet they fill in an indirect picture, at least, of what people were actually thinking about and worrying about nearly six years after the stock market crash.

They weren't talking about private or personal accounts -- not with the Dow Jones average fighting to get above 100, and still several decades away from regaining its 1929 high of 381. Not with an unemployment rate of 20 percent, either. "Fully half of the 7 million Americans who are now over 65 years of age have been reduced to a state of bitter dependency," said Sen. Robert Wagner of New York, the Senate sponsor of the bill. Six million families, he said, were living on less than $1,000 a year.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled his plan to the nation on Jan. 16. Later on, J. F. Essary of The Sun would call it "more nearly the heart of the Roosevelt New Deal than any other measure." But in the category of some things never changing, the press that snowy day was obsessed about something else entirely, a sensational trial (the Lindbergh kidnapping case); in Maryland, the track owners were warning that the governor's new tax plan would effectively kill horse racing in the state.

The Sun editorial page harrumphed over Social Security, which in theory it took a dim view of. But it conceded that something was called for: "Rare is the man who is moved neither by humanity nor by fear in the presence of such suffering as this country, along with all the great nations, has known since 1929." Nonetheless, it urged Congress to move slowly.

But Edmund Duffy, the editorial cartoonist, drew a cigar-smoking politician with one hand in his pocket and the other -- about the size of a leg of lamb -- pressing down on the president's social legislation. He's musing about how he might get in on the action.

In March, Rep. David J. Lewis of Maryland, a Democrat from Cumberland, introduced the Social Security bill in the House of Representatives. It was bundled together with measures establishing unemployment insurance, maternal and child welfare, and aid for dependent children and the blind. On April 15, he warned his fellow members that if they failed to act, it would be as great a dereliction as the failure of Congress to act on the slavery question in the years before the Civil War -- and could have the same consequences. The defeat of Social Security would open the door to either fascism or communism, he said; when he left the podium, he was mobbed by other representatives trying to shake his hand. He wasn't kidding: In Europe, Hitler had just extended his power to the Saarland, and the first show trials in Moscow had ended in guilty verdicts all around.

Besides offering relief to the needy, the other two arguments for Social Security were that it would lessen the severity of future depressions and, most especially, get elderly people out of employment altogether, thus freeing up jobs for younger workers. Before 1935, old people were squeezed by two contradictory pressures: Many had to try to keep working to support themselves, but everyone understood that employers weren't keen to keep them on. This lowered wages and raised anxiety -- and it wasn't so different from the bind that thousands of workers in their 50s and 60s find themselves in today. The point, back in 1935, was to guarantee financial peace of mind in retirement, to place those years beyond the reach of the buffetings of a free market.

Republicans offered objections to the bill, also not so different from the points they make now. One projection worried that by 1980, the system would cost $2 billion a year. (Not even close -- it actually dispensed $121 billion that year.) It was hurting the young to help the old, they said. A privately managed annuity system would be better (foreshadowing, a little, what President Bush seeks). But millions of people were in desperate need in 1935, and FDR wanted a system that would start providing help without delay. Congress gave it to him; on Aug. 14, after noting that "the civilization of the past 100 years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure," he signed the bill into law.

-- Will Englund

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