A Review of Nancy J. Altman’s The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble
Nancy Altman graduated from Radcliffe college. She was the advisor to Senator John C. Danforth on Social Security issues. She used to teach courses about Social Security at Harvard Law School. She also used to be a tax lawyer that dealt with private pensions. She is currently the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pension Rights Center.
BY RYAN MILES
Strikes. Struggles. Scramble. All thoroughly describe the constant turmoil in passing one of the most important New Deal programs: Social Security. The Great Depression was considered a time of epic turmoil. Something had to be done in order to revive the falling country. Many felt that the “biggest problem facing the country was unemployment.”1 Franklin Delano Roosevelt was inaugurated on March 4, 1933, after President Herbert Hoover failed to achieve his goal of lifting the country out of the depression. During the first hundred days of Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, he instituted numerous programs that were destined to either benefit the nation, or destroy the nation. One of these programs was the Committee on Economic Security, also referred to as the CES. The Committee on Economic Security strived to end poverty and to allow seniors and disabled persons to receive pay. This was not an overnight occurrence, as the Committee on Economic Security faced harsh opposition. Many felt that the plan would do more harm than good; others debated about the plan’s constitutionality. Unconstitutional or not, the plan raised controversy that remained prevalent for years to follow. As Nancy Altman’s The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble shows, that Social Security finally went into effect after numerous attempts.
Many mistakenly believe that Social Security originated in the 1930s. Actually, the idea for Social Security stemmed from Civil War pensions that originated in the late 1860s. Later in the nineteenth century, more people began to warm up to the idea of pension programs. Urbanization, industrialization, and worker uprisings all helped the American Federation of Labor become a premier labor union. Hundreds of workers strikes in the late nineteenth century caused new labor groups to be formed. Groups, such as the American Association for Labor Legislation and the Social Insurance Committee, advocated pension programs, but nothing was achieved. Other groups, including the “Share Our Wealth Club” and the “End Poverty in California” groups, attempted to rally the government into instituting welfare programs but failed miserably. It wasn’t until Franklin Roosevelt invited Francis Perkins to be Secretary of Labor that progress was finally made. Becoming the first female Secretary of Labor, Perkins made history, and thus began Roosevelt’s New Deal. Desperate attention was needed to improve the economy. In 1933 alone, 11,000 banks were forced to close their doors. Many individuals feared private pensions, which would have prevented everyone from receiving benefits. During the period known as the Hundred Days, a myriad of welfare programs were instituted. But Social Security, up to now, hasn’t been a welfare program, but rather a social insurance program. The difference is that “insurance is a matter of right for those that are eligible.”2 Many were upset that not all would be guaranteed extra money. Instead, only those eligible would receive the money. Others felt that the program would be acceptable because those that couldn’t work would get a guaranteed source of income. Roosevelt formed the Committee on Economic Security in June 1934 to further plans of instituting a program. Important figures that the Committee on Economic Security hired included Barbara Armstrong, Robert Myers, and Ed Witte. Members of the committee, mainly Witte and Armstrong, often clashed. The staff was divided into two groups that criticized each other and held different opinions on proposed programs. They mainly varied on the extent of Social Security coverage. The Committee on Economic Security scheduled its first meeting to be November 15, 1934, but meetings were delayed until March 1 of the following year. It took months for the committee to accomplish anything, but once they did, they proposed three important programs. One of these programs was Social Security. They knew that in the early years of Social Security, there would most likely be very few recipients, but after a few years, Social Security would be a success.
January 17, 1935 was a historic day — the Economic Security Act was introduced. Millions supported the bill because it supported those over 60 years of age. The act was one of the rare instances where an act was praised by both political parties. Eventually, the name was changed to the Social Security Act of 1935 because it was more alliterative. At one point, there was an attempt to remove old-age insurance from the Social Security Act, but the Senate shot down the attempt. Months later, on April 19, the House of Representatives passed the Social Security Act with a tally of 371-33. Now the act only had to pass the Senate. After numerous hours of filibustering by Huey Long, the Senate passed the Social Security Act 77-6, and Roosevelt signed the act on August 14. Huey Long continued to filibuster and attempt to stop Roosevelt from passing Social Security until he dropped dead with a heart attack on September 10, 1935. Even after the act had passed, many continued to feel that it was unconstitutional. Now began the task of financing the act. In order for the act to have worked, more than 26 million workers would have to be contacted. When Congress passed other acts such as the National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Labor Relations Act, Social Security was pushed aside and buried. Social Security advocates called it Black Monday, because when the other acts got passed, it was clear Social Security was going to be forgotten about. Later in 1941, Social Security was forced to undergo its “second start.”3 As Tax Day neared, and the Revenue Act of 1941 passed, Congress refused to increase payroll tax; they even delayed the scheduled increase. Social Security’s second start didn’t last long, and it was back to the drawing board for Social Security.
Maybe the third time would be the charm. Late in Roosevelt’s presidency, welfare payments were still considered more important to society than Social Security benefits. When Truman took over the presidency, however, many Social Security advocators rejoiced. Truman’s presidential victory was considered a success for Social Security. When the Social Security Amendment of 1950 passed, Social Security jumpstarted for the third time. After the collapse of the Committee on Economic Security, the Ways and Means Committee was handed the task of discussing Social Security. They decided to limit Social Security to individuals age 50 or older or permanently disabled. They also declared that women could retire at age 62 instead of the customary 65. They also declared that Social Security bills would be passed every two years to further improve Social Security. Very little progress was made with Social Security in the 1960s, but it faced major changes in the 1970s. Faced with a huge rise in unemployment and inflation, Social Security projected its first deficit in its 38-year history. Social Security was unable to predict that wages would triple within a period of twenty years, and the pension program faltered. Social Security provided security and peace of mind but as the government faced big budget cuts, Social Security was faced with a crisis.4
Strong advocates of Social Security such as Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, and Bill Clinton did their best to restore Social Security to fame. Named after the famous black radical group the Black Panthers, a group of radical senior citizens called the Gray Panthers started to riot in favor of Social Security. Bill Clinton made it his first goal to save Social Security. As he explicitly stated, “Without Social Security, half our nation’s elderly would be forced into poverty.”5 By this point, many Americans were focused not only on Social Security, but on George W. Bush coming into the presidency. The entire nation was shocked when America was attacked on September 11, 2001 by terrorists. Social Security was placed even farther from citizens’ minds. During the 2004 smear-filled campaign, Social Security was barely mentioned or discussed. Even so, Bush stated that Social Security would remain one of his top priorities. Many believed that Social Security was outdated and would be headed toward bankruptcy. Author Altman, however, has numerous ideas about how to strengthen Social Security, including converting estate taxes to social security taxes, restoring maximum taxable wage base, diversifying the government portfolio, using an accurate consumer price index, covering all state and local employees under Social Security, and scheduling a contribution rate increase to employees and employers. Originating with the Committee on Economic Security all the way to 9/11, Social Security has remained. With Bush’s attempt to undo Social Security in past years, Social Security came under fire. But Social Security has faced prior assaults. It isn’t certain, but Social Security has the potential to triumph once again.
Altman draws from past knowledge and experiences to provide a 70-year summary of Social Security. Her ultimate goal is to provide a detailed account of the creation of Social Security, and how Social Security has remained controversial but intact over the years. Altman also achieves a plan to provide methods that would strengthen Social Security. She believes that if the government enacted her plan, then “no radical reform of Social Security is necessary.”6 Altman advocates that Social Security needs a major upheaval. If the government took a few simple steps and instituted some of the procedures Altman proposes, less change would be necessary for Social Security to succeed. While Altman may hold some bias as she works for, and clearly supports, Social Security, she mainly focuses on providing an overview of the facts. Having worked as a chairman of the Board of Directors of the Pension Rights Center, Altman has considerable knowledge about Social Security. Not providing much opinion, Altman sticks to providing the facts. She was greatly influenced by the events that occurred while she wrote her novel, which was published in 2005. She witnessed George W. Bush’s policies towards Social Security. During his first term of presidency, Bush toured the nation pushing for private accounts. He also advocated that government spending was more important than income — one of the reasons America is facing the current recession. Altman proves that Bush’s tour took a risk, and the reader knows that so far the gamble hasn’t paid off. As a result of Bush’s gamble (and other reasons), America is facing the largest recession since the Great Depression. Perhaps America must need another committee, such as the Committee on Economic Security, to create a reform movement that will help elevate America out of the depression.
As mentioned before, Altman provides ample amounts of facts that help to summarize Social Security’s history. However, some happen to believe that she provides too many details. One critic, Jesslyn Roebuck believes that “Altman’s book runs the risk of social security detail overload.”7 Roebuck strongly believes that the best chapter in the book is the chapter where Altman provides all of the ideas for reform. This chapter is one of the few chapters that doesn’t provide information about Social Security. Even without offering all of these facts, as Roebuck argues, this chapter is the most informative. As Robert G. Kaiser of the Washington Post, states, “[Altman’s] prose is clean and workmanlike, not literary.”8 Basically, he says that Altman provides the facts about Social Security, but lacks a well-developed thesis. Since Altman works for the Pension Rights Center, she has obvious bias, as she clearly supports Social Security. But she succeeds in the novel by providing a clear, interesting overview. Also strong are the examples Altman provides of how Social Security could reform. With Social Security amendments instated every few years, the government would be wise to consider some of Altman’s numerous ideas.
Since Altman’s book doesn’t focus only on the 1930s, readers may have trouble figuring out Altman’s view of life during the time. Even so, it is easy to tell that the 1930s were a historic period for America due to the economic changes. Without the New Deal, Social Security might never have happened. Social Security was a must. Life in the 1930s was rough. Even after the supposed end of the Great Depression, “over half of the elderly in America were impoverished” in 1934.9 If something wasn’t done, chaos would’ve reigned supreme. Before, no movements concerning the elderly had taken place. Many were worried that any group concerning insurance would be privately owned and monopolized. Luckily, the government and the citizens tend to vote again privatization. Today, America is still worried about monopolies. However, that doesn’t have to be the case. Social Security proved that corporations can be successful, without having a monopoly.
By the looks of it, it appears that life in America in the 1930s was difficult. Just like today, people worried about the economy. In times of depression, people panicked. Hoovervilles, the Bonus Army March, and frequent strikes all showcased the difficulty of living in the 1930s. As an attempt to reform, “a number of states passed laws providing no institutional assistance to the needy elderly.”10 It was a start, but only having select states providing assistance wasn’t going to be enough. In order for unemployment to decrease and the elderly to receive more money, the federal government had to take action. That’s why the creation of the Committee on Economic Security was so important. Even so, the Committee on Economic Security didn’t go into effect until the second half of the 1930s. Senior citizens spent over five years without having the benefit of receiving a constant pay. Without being able to work, senior citizens were helpless. Back then, seniors were forced to work to older ages, because after they retired, they would have no way of receiving money.
Detailed. Descriptive. Depictive. All describe Nancy Altman’s novel The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble. From its humble beginnings all the way back with the Committee on Economic Security, to today being one of the largest government programs, Social Security has expanded immensely. Presidents such as Bill Clinton have firmly supported Social Security. Other presidents such as George W. Bush have attempted to change and even totally dismantle Social Security. No matter the case, Social Security has remained strong. Some wonder about the future of Social Security, but “Social Security has survived prior assaults on its integrity” and Social Security can once again triumph.11 By providing a 70-year history of Social Security, The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble looks at how Social Security became what it is today. Although Social Security required three attempts to go into effect, it has finally prevailed, and since it has, those unable to work have been comfortable with a constant income. Even though Social Security is currently undergoing difficult times with the struggling economy, it will once again be prevalent, just like the Committee on Economic Security intended it to be.
1: Altman, Nancy. The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision to Bush’s Gamble. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2005. 43. Print.
Ryan Miles was born in Upland, California and currently attends Irvine High School. He plans on attending college and majoring in business. After that, he will attempt to become a successful entrepreneur. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey and hanging out with friends.
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