Community Voices: Happy Birthday, Social Security!


On January 31, 1940, the first monthly retirement check was issued to Ida May Fuller of Ludlow, Vermont, in the amount of $22.54. Photo via

The following was written by former Santa Monica resident and activist Ernie Powell. Powell is currently an organizer and consultant with Social Security Works.

August 14 is Social Security’s 82nd birthday. All of us, young, middle aged and old, should celebrate and do so with enthusiasm and pride. No retirement system has done more to take older Americans out of the terrible grip of poverty than Social Security.

Older Americans are not the only ones amongst us who should be celebrating. Disabled workers, surviving spouses, and children whose main provider has passed away can also depend on the protections that Social Security provides.

Despite Social Security’s profound success and popularity, this is still not a time in which those of us who support the program can rest. Improvements and expansion make sense. And, the history of Social Security teaches us that policy cannot stand alone. Organizing and advocacy are always necessary.

There are forces looking to do great damage to the program. Since Social Security began in 1935, there have been organizations, political groups and business interests dedicated to cutting the program drastically or ending it entirely.

Those that wish Social Security harm are enormously wealthy — greedy bankers, investors, and self-interested rich elites. Joining this wrecking crew is the new Republican president. Candidate Trump ran on promise after promise pledging to leave Social Security alone. But now that he’s in office, Trump is breaking that promise through his rhetoric, his cabinet appointments and his policy.

The Trump administration’s most overt and aggressive attack so far is on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), a key part of our Social Security system. Trump’s budget would cut SSDI by $64 billion. This is an attempt to divide and conquer by pitting retirees against people with disabilities, but the American people will not be fooled. Any proposals to cut Social Security are an attack on every current and future beneficiary.

In addition to the dangers coming from the Trump administration, there have been millions of dollars spent by right wing think tanks, conservative groups and major leaders in the Republican Party pushing dangerous proposals that would do great harm to Social Security.

Their proposals call for partial or complete privatization as well as cuts to benefits.

Truth is the enemy of these right wing zealots. So is citizen engagement.

For decades, Social Security has survived and thrived thanks to overwhelming popular support. That history is noteworthy as we celebrate the 82nd anniversary of our Social Security system.

Even at the system’s original inception, people power was a part of the equation. Before and during the Great Depression and as Roosevelt took the White House in 1932, grassroots organizations in our country were pushing hard for a pension program.

FDR, in crafting the New Deal, had Social Security as part of his vision. The only disagreement during the deepest and darkest days of the Great Depression between advocacy movements at the time and President Roosevelt was the question of when.

Along came what was called the Townsend Movement. Francis Townsend, a retired doctor in Long Beach, California, looked out of his kitchen window one morning in 1933. He saw three older women rummaging through his trash, searching for food.

What Dr. Townsend saw that day so enraged him that he wrote a series of letters to the Long Beach Press-Telegram stating that “A torrent of invectives tore out of me, the big blast of bitterness that had been building in me for years… I swore, I ranted, and I let my voice bellow with a wild hatred for things as they are.” He said in his letter that at that moment he had vowed to his wife that he would shout, “Until the whole country hears me.”

The Townsend movement grew to 7,000 local clubs from every part of the country. To join a Townsend Club one had only to contribute $0.25 – you got it – 25 cents. Their program called for a $200 pension for everyone over the age of 60. A two-percent sales tax on all business transactions was the funding source.

The vibrant nature of citizen power helped to move President Roosevelt to work with Congress and pass Social Security earlier than he had planned.

The point is that democracy has been Social Security’s best ally. From the Townsend movement to the effort to pass needed reforms in the early 1980’s in order to maintain future benefits to the 2005 fight against partial privatization with the President George W. Bush, democracy via citizen power has done its job.

It will continue to its job as the Trump administration exhibits dangers signs and broken promises. We know that Social Security works and citizen power has and will do all that is necessary to protect it, educate about it, organize for it and work to expand it.

In 2010, Nancy Altman and Eric Kingston co-founded a group called Social Security Works. A few years ago, they authored an incredible book entitled, Social Security Works! Why Social Security Isn’t Going Broke and How Expanding It Will Help Us All.

In the book, they quoted FDR on the day he signed the bill that made Social Security law. Here is what the President Roosevelt said:

“We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protections to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty –ridden old age.

“This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure, which is being built but is by no means complete…. It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide the United States an economic structure of greater soundness.”

FDR’s hopeful inspiration mixed with the incredible work done for years and years by organizations and citizens activists to protect and expand Social Security moves us forward.

So, August 14, the 82nd birthday of the best anti-poverty program ever invented, is absolutely a day for celebration.

Happy Birthday Social Security!

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