There are great parallels between the birth pangs of Social Security and President Joe Biden’s domestic political agenda in the Build Back Better package. Both proposed radical changes to the social pact between working Americans and their government. Both were met with violent screams of “socialism” from conservative who believed that the state should do as little as possible for the common people. Both were full paid for. Both have encountered irresistible pressure to scale back benefits and help fewer people. And we hope that, like Social Security, Build Back Better will subsequently be strengthened and expanded once the American people have fallen in love with it.
As descendants of President Franklin Roosevelt and his cabinet members who created Social Security, we could only agree with President Biden comparison between Social Security and the backbone of Build Back Better, the expanded child tax credit, in their power to reduce poverty.
From the day he took office, FDR and his Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins had envisioned a comprehensive economic security program to pull workers out of the depression. Halfway through his first term, amid a conservative reaction against the New Deal, he gave Perkins an imminent deadline to outline a program of long-term economic security for hard-hit Americans. he told her“I know you will agree to this … and you must not hesitate.”
Two days before the deadline, Perkins called her Economic Security Committee (including our grandparents) to her home, “led her into the dining room, put a large bottle of Scotch on the table and told them Nobody would leave until the job was done.”
Thus was born Social Security, and it would become the most successful welfare program in this nation’s history—one that provided an important safety net for generations of Americans and lifted tens of millions out of poverty.
It’s easy to forget that Perkins’ original version had to be downsized significantly. When he enacted it, FDR said the Social Security Act was “a cornerstone in a structure that is being built but is by no means complete.” Items removed from the final legislation included disability and survivor benefits, automatic increases in the cost of living, coverage for domestic and farm workers (mainly blacks and women to appease conservatives), universal health care, and a government permanent employment program. But most of these omissions were corrected in the following decades.