Social Security’s Enduring Legacy: Adaptability

Aug 14, 2012Mark Schmitt

On the 77th anniversary of Social Security, we're celebrating what has made the program so important and why it continues to be vital today. Mark Schmitt lauds it for its ability to provide security throughout tectonic shifts in our economy and society. Read the rest of our coverage here.

If Franklin D. Roosevelt rejoined the living tomorrow, he probably wouldn't recognize Social Security, his greatest domestic legacy. That might sound like something a critic or skeptic of the program would say, as if it had broken faith with Roosevelt's vision or expanded far beyond its original intent.

But, in fact, what Roosevelt would see would be Social Security's greatest virtue: its adaptability to changing circumstances. Social Security has survived, thrived, and continued to provide a base level of economic security not only through big macroeconomic shifts (such as the inflation of the 1970s) but also the transformations and uncertainties in our individual and family lives. That adaptability and continuous reexamination and improvement is the quality most in keeping with the experimental, pragmatic nature of the New Deal.

Between 1935 and 2000, there were 30 major legislative changes to Social Security, roughly one every two years, under Republican and Democratic administrations. In 1939, it expanded its focus from the individual worker to the family, adding benefits for surviving spouses and young children. In 1950, it expanded to cover domestic and farm workers, whose omission was the atrocious compromise FDR had made to secure the support of Southern conservatives. In successive changes from 1954 through 1960, a disability program was created, and in the 1970s, benefits were indexed to inflation. Changes in 1977 and 1983 adjusted the financing of the program, changing the formula for benefits to reduce costs and build up more of a reserve (the Trust Fund) so that future retirees financed some of their own benefits. In 2000, the earnings test for Social Security recipients was eliminated. And while Social Security was created with the assumption of a male breadwinner, over 77 years it has been adjusted to account for the changing role of women in the workforce and the family.

The point of this history is a reminder that Social Security is not a fixed, unchanging thing, a jewel of the New Deal to be worshipped. Rather, it is an incredibly adaptive, responsive structure on which we've been able to build several different forms of economic and family security and adjust to radical changes in the economy, family, industry, education, and expectations over the years.

It's become routine to say that Social Security is an industrial age program that's ill suited, or at least needs to be modernized, to deal with information age challenges, but it's telling that this cliché never gets to specifics. It's true that the current era presents dramatic new challenges to economic security: household debt far larger than in the 1930s, 1950s, or even the 1980s (when most households didn't even have access to consumer credit); the rapid decline since 1979 in the number of defined-benefit pension plans; the disappearance of lifetime employment at a single employer; and, most recently, the high rates of long-term unemployment among people in their late 50s and early 60s. But for almost every one of these changes, there's an answer within Social Security that's as good as any other. We could address the insecurity around pensions by creating a universal 401(k) account, but we could do exactly the same thing, with far less complexity and hassle, simply by expanding Social Security. We could construct some new form of economic security for those who have lost their jobs in their late 50s and may never work again – or, as James K. Galbraith has proposed, we could make it less costly for people to take Social Security at age 62 (which a majority of recipients do anyway) and open up opportunities for younger workers.

There are also liberals who hold the position “never touch Social Security.” They, too, should recognize the record of adaptability and change throughout the history of the program. There are bad changes to the program (such as an abrupt increase in the eligibility age) and less bad ones. But one way or another, it's worth putting Social Security on a path that won't require a significant cut in benefits, or hike in payroll taxes, in 15 or 20 years. I'm not endorsing any specific plan here, but just pointing out that resisting any and all changes to Social Security is really a betrayal of the program's greatest strength.

There are programs that really are locked into a particular era and model of employment. Unemployment Insurance, for example, reflects some of the assumptions of the industrial era economy, such as a business cycle in which dips last about 26 weeks and workers return to their previous employer. But Social Security has a seamless versatility that has made it adaptable to all the massive shifts in the economy and our society since 1935. That, rather than any specific component of the program, is its greatest virtue and the reason that Social Security will endure. 

Mark Schmitt is a Senior Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute.

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