A Brief History of Economic Security: Part II
Note: This account of Economic Security is a portion of a report entitled “Historical Background and Development of Social Security” prepared by the Office of the Historian in the Social Security Administration. The entire report can be viewed at www.socialsecurity.gov
Introduction: Despite all of the institutional strategies adopted in early America to assure some measure of economic security, huge changes would sweep through America which would, in time, undermine the existing institutions. Four important demographic changes happened in America beginning in the mid-1880s that rendered the traditional systems of economic security increasingly unworkable:
- The Industrial Revolution
- The urbanization of America
- The disappearance of the “extended” family
- A marked increase in life expectancy
The Industrial Revolution transformed the majority of working people from self-employed agricultural workers into wage earners working for large industrial concerns. In an agricultural society, prosperity could be easily seen to be linked to one’s labor, and anyone willing to work could usually provide at least a bare subsistence for themselves and their family. But when economic income is primarily from wages, one’s economic security can be threatened by factors outside one’s control–such as recessions, layoffs, failed businesses, etc.
Along with the shift from an agricultural to an industrial society, Americans moved from farms and small rural communities to large cities–that’s where the industrial jobs were. In 1890, only 28% of the population lived in cities, by 1930 this percentage had exactly doubled, to 56%.
This trend toward urbanization also contributed to another significant shift in American society, the disappearance of the extended family and the rapid rise of the nuclear family. Today we tend to assume that “the family” consists of parents and children–the so-called nuclear family. For most of our history, we lived in “extended families” that included children, parents, grandparents and other relatives. The advantage of the extended family was that when a family member became too old or infirm to work, the other family members assumed responsibility for their support. But when the able-bodied left the farms to seek employment in the cities, often the parents or grandparents stayed behind. And when new immigrants first arrived in our land, it was often the breadwinner who first made the passage and only later could he bring the family over.
And finally, another significant change happened in the early decades of this century. Thanks primarily to better health care and sanitation, and the development of effective public health programs, Americans began to live significantly longer. In three short decades, 1900-1930, average life spans increased by 10 years. This was the most rapid increase in life spans in recorded human history. The result was a rapid growth in the number of aged persons, to 7.8 million by 1935.
The net result of this complex set of demographic and social changes was that America was older, more urban and more industrial, and fewer of its people lived on the land in extended families. The traditional strategies for the provision of economic security were becoming increasingly fragile.
The Stock Market Crash & The Great Depression: When the New York Stock Exchange opened on the morning of October 24, 1929, nervous traders sensed something ominous in the trading patterns. By 11:00 a.m. the market had started to plunge. Shortly after noon a group of powerful bankers met secretly at J.P. Morgan & Co. next door to the Exchange and pledged to spend $240 million of their own funds to stabilize the market. This strategy worked for a few days, but the panic broke out again the following Tuesday, when the market crashed again, and nothing could be done to stop it.
Before three months had passed, the Stock Market lost 40% of its value; $26 billion of wealth disappeared. Great American corporations suffered huge financial losses. AT&T lost one-third of its value, General Electric lost half of its, and RCA’s stock fell by three-fourths within a matter of months. (It would take 25 years for the stock market to return to its pre-crash level following the 1929 crash.)
As America slipped into an economic depression following the Crash of 1929, unemployment exceeded 25 percent; an estimated 10,000 banks
failed, the Gross National Product declined from $105 billion in 1929 to only $55 billion in 1932. Compared to pre-Depression levels, net new business investment was a minus $5.8 billion in 1932. Wages paid to workers declined from $50 billion in 1929 to only $30 billion in 1932.
Radical Calls to Action: The decade of the 1930s found America facing the worst economic crisis in its modern history. Millions of people were unemployed, two million adult men (“hobos”) wandered aimlessly around the country, banks and businesses failed and the majority of the elderly in America lived in dependency. These circumstances led to many calls for change.
Every Man A King: Huey Long was Governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and served in the U.S. Senate from 1932 to 1935. A nominal Democrat, Huey Long was a radical populist. He wanted the government to confiscate the wealth of the nation’s rich and privileged. He called his program “Share Our Wealth.” It called upon the federal government to guarantee every family in the nation an annual income of $5,000, so they could have the necessities of life, including a home, a job, a radio and an automobile. He also proposed limiting private fortunes to $50 million, legacies to $5 million, and annual incomes to $1 million. Everyone over age 60 would receive an old-age pension. His slogan was “Every Man A King.”
The “Share Our Wealth” program immediately became a movement. Clubs were formed in every state in the nation. By 1935 the movement claimed 27,000 local clubs with 7.7 million members.
The Townsend Plan: Dr. Francis E. Townsend was a lean, bespectacled physician from Long Beach, California. In 1933 he found himself unemployed at age 66 with no savings and no prospects. This experience galvanized him to become the self-proclaimed champion of the cause of the elderly. He devised a plan known as the Townsend Old Age Revolving Pension Plan, or Townsend Plan for short.
|The basic idea of the Townsend Plan was that the government would provide a pension of $200 per month to every citizen age 60 and older. The pensions would be funded by a 2% national sales tax. There were three eligibility requirements:
Dr. Townsend published his plan in a local Long Beach newspaper in early 1933 and within about two years there were 7,000 Townsend Clubs around the country with more than 2.2 million members actively working to make the Townsend Plan the nation’s old-age pension system.
Note: Following the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, most of these alternative pension schemes disappeared as quickly as they had arisen. The Townsend Plan, however, hung around at least until the passage of the 1950 Amendments to the Social Security program, which made benefits much more generous and finally took the last of the steam out of the Townsend movement. But as late as November 1949, in the House of Representatives 179 members signed a discharge petition to force a floor vote on the Townsend Plan–barely 39 members short of the number needed to force the House to consider the final version of the Townsend Plan as a replacement for the Social Security system.
Fire and Brimstone: Another influence on Depression-era public policy was the “Union for Social Justice” movement led by a radio preacher by the name of Father . Father Charles Coughlin had a weekly radio program with 35-40 million listeners which he used to mix a little religion with a lot of politics. His enemies, in addition to the devil himself, were Roosevelt, international bankers, communists, and labor unions, and he was not shy in describing them in interchangeable terms. At the height of his popularity, Father Coughlin had a greater share of the weekly broadcast audience than Howard Stern, Rush Limbaugh, Paul Harvey and Larry King combined.
Although Father Coughlin’s main effort was to pillory his enemies, he did have a broad program of social reforms that included a deliberate inflation of the currency and the nationalization of all banks. He was also an anti-Semite and isolationist whose views were so extreme that the Catholic Church finally censured him and forced him to cease his political activities. In 1936, Coughlin, along with Townsend and the remnants of Huey Long’s Share the Wealth Movement, would join to form a third party to contest the presidential election in the hopes of preventing President Roosevelt from being re-elected.
Upton Sinclair and His EPIC Program: Upton Sinclair was a famous author and social reformer from California, and an avowed Socialist, who in 1933 was asked by a dissident group of Los Angeles Democrats to help them draft a platform proposal for dealing with the state’s economic problems. They were so impressed by Sinclair’s plan–which he christened the End Poverty in California, or EPIC plan–that they persuaded him to change his registration to Democratic and to run for the party’s nomination for governor in 1934.
|Sinclair’s EPIC scheme was a 12-point program to remake the Californian economy. It involved the issuance of scrip currency, the creation of large state-run bartering enterprises, a tax on idle land and floating a large state bond for $300 million. Point 10 of the plan was a proposal to give pensions of $50 a month to all needy persons over 60 who had lived in California for at least three years. There was a state pension plan in operation in California at the time, but its benefits were very low, and the eligibility requirements were so severe that most elderly Californians could not qualify. (This was true of many of the state pension programs around the country.) Sinclair’s pension proposal was very popular because in one fell swoop it reduced the minimum age for pensions by 10 years, almost doubled their value, and eliminated restrictive eligibility requirements.|
Sinclair’s EPIC program, and especially its pension proposal, had a great appeal in Depression-weary California. Sinclair and his supporters organized EPIC clubs, published newsletters, formed ad hoc organizations and found a large chorus of supporters with unlimited enthusiasm for his ideas. In short order, Upton Sinclair’s EPIC movement captured the Democratic party and Sinclair became the Democratic nominee for governor in the election of 1934. The party’s platform became the EPIC program, including the pension plan.
When the votes were counted, Upton Sinclair got 37% of the vote, the Republican candidate got 48% and a third-party progressive candidate took another 13%. Had it been a two-man race, Upton Sinclair might have become Governor of California and the EPIC pension plan might well have become the California model.
Ham & Eggs: During the 1930s California was a virtual hot-house for new pension schemes, and one of the most creative (and dubious) of the pension schemes of the 1930s went by the unlikely moniker of “Ham & Eggs.” Ham & Eggs was the brainstorm of a self-promoting huckster in-aptly named Robert Noble. The scheme was based on a call for the state government to issue special currency called “scrip” that would be paid each week to every unemployed Californian age 50 and older. Questions about the validity of the economics did not dampen the enthusiasm of the movement’s supporters, nor even did the numerous scandals, financial and otherwise, involving the movement’s leaders. The eventual form of the plan called for the state to issue “$30 every Thursday,” which became the rallying cry of the movement. The simplicity of the movement was expressed in a bit of doggerel from the organization’s newsletter the “National Ham & Eggs:”
“Let’s stay away from politics
Regardless of who hollers
Let’s not be fooled by childish tricks
LET’S GET OUR THIRTY DOLLARS”
The Ham & Eggs movement had more than 300,000 members–and many more supporters. In 1938 the successful Democratic candidate for governor, Culbert Olsen, openly supported the plan and a proposition was placed on the ballot to adopt the Ham & Eggs plan as California state policy. The proposition was narrowly defeated by a vote of 1,143,670 in favor to 1,398,999 against.
The Ham & Eggs movement was based on dubious economics, it was founded and run by a succession of characters of questionable integrity, it suffered from internecine rivalries and frequent scandals, and yet, at the peak of its influence in 1938, more than a million Californians, including the state’s Governor, believed that it was the solution to the problem of income security for the aged. That such a poor candidate for a public policy would be so widely embraced is strong evidence of how hungry the public was for action to address the problem of income security for the elderly.
Bigelow Plan: In Ohio, Reverend Herbert S. Bigelow initiated a proposed State amendment to guarantee an income of $50 a month ($80 for married couples living together) to those over sixty years of age who were without gainful employment. This particular plan was to be financed partly out of an increased tax on real estate (2% hike on land valued at more than $20,000 an acre), and partly out of an income tax equal to one-fourth the federal income tax paid by individuals and corporations. The Bigelow pension plan garnered nearly half a million voters before it was defeated. As some experts of the time calculated, the plan would cost more than the existing state budget for two years.
General Welfare Federation of America: A woman in South Carolina scrawls a note to a man in Washington whom she addresses as “Dear
Mr. President.” “I’m 72 years old and have no one to take care of me.” Another letter comes to the White House from Virginia. “I’m a 60 year-old widow greatly in need of medical aid, food and fuel, I pray that you would have pity on me.” Letters such as these came by the thousands from old folks across the country to the President, to Mrs. Roosevelt, to almost every one in Washington whose name was familiar to them.
It isn’t any wonder then, why the elderly looked to the various organizations that sprang up around the country offering salvation in some form of an old-age pension plan. One such organization was the General Welfare Federation of America. Headquartered in Washington, DC, and founded by Arthur L. Johnson, who denounced the newly established Social Security Act as a “great American fraud.” He was just as severe in attacking other organizations such as the Townsend, Ham-and-Eggs, and Bigelow plans as “crackpot” pension schemes.
Mr. Johnson’s plan, like most of the others, wiped out the elaborate system of employment records kept under the present Social Security Act. Instead, it provided for a pension to every citizen on or after reaching the age of 60, with the simple stipulation that they not engage in gainful employment, that they spend their pension for American goods and services, and that they not maintain able-bodied male dependents between the ages of 30 and 60.
The pension would be fixed at not less than $30 a month and not more than $60 a month. The actual amount would be determined by dividing the total funds available by the total number of annuitants. The funds would be derived from a gross income tax of 2 percent on individuals and corporations, with exceptions to protect charitable, religious, cooperative and similar organizations. The proponents of the this plan did manage did get it introduced in the House of Representatives, however, the bill died in committee in 1939 before ever reaching a House vote.
Technocracy: Out of America’s fascination with technology came another eccentric “reform” movement known as Technocracy. Founded in 1918 by a California patent attorney it would briefly flare as a serious intellectual movement centered around Columbia University; although as a mass-movement its real center was California where it claimed half a million members in 1934. Technocracy counted among its admirers such men as the novelist H.G. Wells, the author Theodore Dreiser and the economist Thorstein Veblen.
Technocracy held that all politics and all economic arrangements based on the “Price System” (i.e., based on traditional economic theory) were antiquated and that the only hope of building a successful modern world was to let engineers and other technology experts run the country on engineering principles. Technocracy’s rallying cry was “production for use,” which was meant as a contrast to production for profit in the capitalist system. Production for use became a slogan for many of the radical-left movements of the era. Upton Sinclair, among others, affirmed his belief in “production for use” and the Technocrats briefly made common cause with Sinclair, and even Huey Long, in California. But the Technocrats were not of the political left, as they held every political and economic system, from the left to the right, to be unsound.
|The Technocrats believed that the solution to all problems of economic security were the same, the rigorous application of engineering principles in a system freed from the Price System. They conceived of retirement as being made possible at age 45 for everyone due to the vast prosperity the new age of Technocracy would usher in. Rejecting all forms of traditional political science, the Technocrats refused to even use standard geographical maps because their boundaries were political, so they would refer to states only by their geographical coordinates. Names, too, were suspect for some reason so members of the movement in California were designated only by numbers. A speaker at one California rally was introduced only as 1x1809x56!
Oddly enough, alone among this collection of radical movements of the 1930s, the Technocracy movement survives, if not quite thrives, into the present day.
Note: The classic 1941 Frank Capra film “Meet John Doe,” staring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck, depicts this period of quixotic mass movements through the story of a fictional “John Doe” who represents an amalgam of many of the ideas of these various movements.
The Establishment Response: If America was to avoid the siren songs of the “radical calls to action,” responsible political leaders would need to offer some persuasive alternatives. As the Depression grew, three general approaches emerged: do nothing; rely on voluntary charity; and expand welfare benefits for those hardest hit by the Depression.
The Do Nothing Response: It seemed to many politicians and leading public figures that the Depression was just another dip in the economic cycle and that it would right itself soon enough. These voices counseled a restrained response, or no response at all. In the early aftermath of the stock market crash such views were especially common. This view that nothing very much was wrong and nothing very much needed to be done, began to fade quickly as the Depression deepened. Even so, it held considerable sway in the early years after The Crash.
President Hoover’s “Volunteerism:” President Hoover had a distinguished career before becoming president. He made a name for himself in international relief efforts before and after World War I. He helped feed millions of starving people, through the efforts of voluntary partnerships of government, business and private giving. He knew this kind of “volunteerism” worked, on a massive scale, and he saw no reason why it should not work to solve the problems of the Depression. So although he engaged in some limited federal relief efforts, his main response to the Depression was to advocate voluntary efforts, which never materialized.
The main problem with this strategy was that America was able to help rebuild Europe in the aftermath of World War I because America’s economy was basically sound. In the Depression the total wealth of the nation was cut in half during the first three years after The Crash. This made voluntary charity a difficult ideal to achieve.
Expand Welfare: Even before the Depression hit, the States had been forced to deal with the problems of economic security in a wage-based, industrial economy. Workers Compensation programs were established at the state level before Social Security, and there were state welfare programs for the elderly in place before Social Security. Prior to Social Security, the main strategy for providing economic security to the elderly, in the face of the demographic changes discussed above, was to provide various forms of old-age “pensions.” These were welfare programs, eligibility for which was based on proof of financial need. By 1934, most states had such “pension” plans. Even at the state level, however, these plans were inadequate. Some had restrictive eligibility criteria which resulted in many of the elderly being unable to qualify. The most generous plan paid a maximum of $1 per day.
In the Congress, the consensus of conventional wisdom was for more old-age assistance like that available in the states.
The “New” Alternative: With the coming to office of President Roosevelt in 1932, and the introduction of his economic security proposal based on social insurance rather than welfare assistance, the debate changed. It was no longer a choice between radical changes and old approaches that no longer seemed to work. The “new” idea of social insurance, which was already widespread in Europe, would become an innovative alternative.
Social insurance, as conceived by President Roosevelt, would address the permanent problem of economic security for the elderly by creating a work-related, contributory system in which workers would provide for their own future economic security through taxes paid while employed. Thus it was an alternative both to reliance on welfare and to radical changes in our capitalist system. In the context of its time, it can be seen as a moderately conservative, yet activist, response to the challenges of the Depression.
The Social Insurance Movement
|The Social Security program that would eventually be adopted in late 1935 relied for its core principles on the concept of “social insurance.” Social insurance was a respectable and serious intellectual tradition that began in Europe in the 19th century and was an expression of a European social welfare tradition. It was first adopted in Germany in 1889 at the urging of the famous Chancellor, Otto von Bismark. Indeed, by the time America adopted social insurance in 1935, there were 34 nations providing some form of social insurance (about 20 of these were contributory programs like Social Security). Philosophically, social insurance emphasized government-sponsored efforts to provide for the economic security of its citizens. The tradition of social insurance would come to be seen as the reasonable, practical alternative to the radical calls to action represented by Townsend, Long, Sinclair and the others.|
Although the definition of social insurance can vary considerably in its particulars, its basic features are: the insurance principle under which a group of persons are “insured” in some way against a defined risk, and a social element which usually means that the program is shaped in part by broader social objectives, rather than being shaped solely by the self-interest of the individual participants. Social insurance coverage can be provided for a number of different types of insured conditions, from disability and death to old-age or unemployment. We may find it obvious to think of death, disability or unemployment as conditions causing loss of income and which can be ameliorated by pooling of risk. It is at first a little odd to think of old-age or retirement in these same terms. But that is precisely how the early social insurance theorists conceived of retirement, as producing a loss of income due to cessation of work activity.
One of the first American books on social insurance was by a Columbia University economics professor named Henry Seager. Seager explained the principle of old-age security based on social insurance in his 1910 book, “Social Insurance, A Program of Social Reform”:
“As changing economic conditions are rendering the dependence of old people on their descendants for support increasingly precarious, so, on the other hand, new obstacles are arising to providing for old age through voluntary saving. . . The proper method of safeguarding old age is clearly through some plan of insurance. . . for every wage earner to attempt to save enough by himself to provide for his old age is needlessly costly. The intelligent course is for him to combine with other wage earners to accumulate a common fund out of which old-age annuities may be paid to those who live long enough to need it.”
One of the earliest American advocates of a plan that could be recognized as modern social insurance was Theodore Roosevelt. In 1912, Roosevelt spoke at a conference of the Progressive Party and made a strong statement on behalf of social insurance:
|“We must protect the crushable elements at the base of our present industrial structure…it is abnormal for any industry to throw back upon the community the human wreckage due to its wear and tear, and the hazards of sickness, accident, invalidism, involuntary unemployment, and old age should be provided for through insurance.” TR would succeed in having a plank adopted in the platform of the Progressive Party that stated: “We pledge ourselves to work unceasingly in state and nation for: . . .The protection of home life against the hazards of sickness, irregular employment, and old age through the adoption of a system of social insurance adapted to American use.”|
The Threshold of Change: So as 1934 dawned the nation was deep in the throes of the Depression. Confidence in the old institutions was shaken. Social changes that started with the Industrial Revolution had long ago passed the point of no return. The traditional sources of economic security: assets; labor; family; and charity, had all failed in one degree or another. Radical proposals for action were springing like weeds from the soil of the nation’s discontent. President Franklin Roosevelt would choose the social insurance approach as the “cornerstone” of his attempts to deal with the problem of economic security.