Yes, it is 75 years this month since the birth of Social Security, one of America’s most successful social program.
Yesterday, my wife and I went to the home and presidential library of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in Hyde Park, NY, to view the opening exhibit in the museum celebrating 75 years of Social Security. It is an excellent exhibit, as is FDR’s home. A visit to the FDR presidential library and museum is to transport one back to the days of desperate struggle and to discovery of how the charisma of one man and his equally charismatic wife — and their concern for the average American – lead a country from despair to recovery.
Aside from what we learned about the birth of Social Security, we did pick up a few tidbits of presidential history. FDR’s presidential library was the first presidential library and is the only library that was used by a sitting president (it was opened in 1941 and FDR had an office in it that he used).
The house and estate land were owned by FDR’s mother. She died in September 1941 and FDR wore a black armband in memory of his mother. Americans thought, however, that he wore the armband in memory of Pearl Harbor, which took place 3 months later. The house is the house in which FDR was born, grew up, and raised his family. When he died, he willed the house to the National Parks Service, but gave his wife Eleanor, and his children, life estates in the property. Eleanor and the children all agreed to immediately turn the house over to the NPS. When asked about the speed with which she gave up the house, her response was to the effect that the house was Sara Delano Roosevelt (FDR’s mother) and FDR’s house, not her house. (This was borne out by FDR’s refusal to let Eleanor change anything in the house that his mother had done.)
Although there are a lot of rooms (35) and bathrooms (9) in the house, the house is really quite modest and lacks the grandeur that is evident in the Vanderbilt summer house just down the road. There was no room at the home for Secret Service to stay, so they were lodged at the Vanderbilt Mansion, which was also owned by the Park Service.
The Social Security exhibit is a reminder of how desperate lives were in the mid-20th century. Few people had pensions (less than 20% of workers) and most had to live off savings, which were wiped out with the bank failures of the Depression years. The letters written to the Roosevelts are poignant and heart-breaking.
When Social Security was established, it did not cover all Americans. In order to get the necessary votes to pass the legislation, certain classes of workers were excluded, including agricultural workers, most of whom were minorities. Even so, the legislation was challenged in the courts and it was a 5-4 Supreme Court decision (reminiscient of decisions today) that finally affirmed Social Security.
Today, Social Security serves as the safety net for many American workers. In the recession of the past few years, absent Social Security many Americans would starve.
As I left the grounds of FDR’s home, I remarked to my wife that here is an example of the fundamental difference between Democrat and Republican administrations: Democrats prefer to tinker to make things, hopefully, better for all citizens, whereas Republicans prefer to encourage people to stand up for themselves, hopefully to make things better for the individual. Each is right at times, but each is wrong at times. It is knowing when one is right and when one is wrong that is difficult.
Roosevelt gave us Social Security (and the first woman cabinet member who was also responsible for Social Security, Frances Perkins); Truman integrated the armed forces; Eisenhower gave us the interstate highway system, which propelled economic growth; Johnson gave us social equality; Nixon made us a true world player.
Alas, it seems that the greatness of immediate postwar presidents has declined. More recent presidents have been less visionary and more partisan, and perhaps less good for America as a whole. After seeing the exhibit, I have no doubt that politics were as partisan then as they are today. The difference was the leadership qualities and abilities of the president, the ability to transcend partisanship.
Americans should renew their faith in America by visiting the FDR library and museum. FDR brought us a new world, one that still benefits Americans 75 years later. Happy birthday, Social Security!