A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

FDR’s “Voluntary” Social Security

Q: Did FDR promise that Social Security would be voluntary? Did Democrats end tax deductions for Social Security withholding?

A: Social Security has never been voluntary and taxes paid to support it have never been deductible from federal income taxes. A widely e-mailed "history lesson" gets nearly all its facts wrong.


Dozens of readers have asked about this one, which has been going around for months in various forms:

Chain e-mail:

Your Social Security

[EET ]Just in case some of you young whippersnappers (& some older ones too) Weren’t taught or just didn’t know this. Be sure and show it to your kids. They need a little history lesson on what’s what.

And it doesn’t matter whether you are Democrat of Republican. Facts are facts!!!

Our Social Security

Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat, introduced the Social Security (FICA) Program. He promised:

1.) That participation in the program would be completely voluntary.

2.) That the participants would only have to pay 1% of the first $1,400 of their annual incomes into the program,

3.) That the money the participants elected to put into the program would be deductible from their income for tax purposes each year,

4.) That the money the participants put into the independent ‘Trust Fund’ rather than into the General Operating Fund, and therefore, would only be used to fund the Social Security Retirement Program, and no other
Government program, and,

5.) That the annuity payments to the retirees would never be taxed as income.

Since many of us have paid into FICA for years and are now receiving a Social Security check every month — and then finding that we are getting taxed on 85% of the money we paid to the federal government to ‘put
away, you may be interested in the following:

————————————————– ———–

Q: Which political party took Social Security from the Independent ‘Trust Fund’ and put it in to the General Fund so that Congress could spend it?

A: It was Lyndon Johnson and the Democratically-controlled House and Senate.


Q: Which political party eliminated the income tax deduction for Social Security (FICA) withholding?

A: The Democratic Party.


Q: Which political party started taxing Social Security annuities?

A: The Democratic Party, with Al Gore casting the ‘tie-breaking’ deciding vote as President of the Senate, while he was Vice President of the U.S.


Q: Which political party decided to start giving annuity payments to immigrants?


A: That’s right!

Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party. Immigrants moved into this country, and at age 65, they began to receive Social Security payments! The Democratic Party gave these payments to them even though they never paid a dime into it!


Then, after violating the original contract (FICA), the Democrats turn around and tell you that the Republicans want to take your Social Security away!

And the worst part about it is, uninformed citizens believe it!

If enough people receive this, maybe a seed of awareness will be planted and maybe changes will evolve. Maybe not, some Democrats are awfully sure of what isn’t so. But it’s worth a try. How many people can YOU send this to?

Actions speak louder than bumper stickers.



‘A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have.’
-Thomas Jefferson[/EET]


This elaborate collection of falsehoods is so detailed that we believe it must be an intentional and malicious effort at disinformation. It grafts some new whoppers on top of a list that we debunked in April 2004, in a special report we called "Lies in the E-mail, Part 2." The earlier version, we said, was "full of laughably inaccurate claims," and this one is worse.

FDR Never Promised That

We’ll address the newer claims first, specifically the five "promises" supposedly made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the inception of the Social Security system in 1935. We rely here on no less an authority than the official historian of the Social Security System, Larry DeWitt, who has written up a detailed response to these claims under the heading "Myths and Misinformation About Social Security," which can be found on the Social Security History Web page, along with answers to other frequently asked questions.

  1. Not Voluntary. Contrary to the e-mail’s very first claim, FDR never promised that "the program would be completely voluntary." It is supported by taxes and participation has never been voluntary. As historian DeWitt states: "From the first days of the program to the present, anyone working on a job covered by Social Security has been obligated to pay their payroll taxes. "
  2. Not 1 Percent. Another false claim is that FDR promised participants would pay only "1% of the first $1,400" of income. The law FDR signed taxed income up to $3,000, for one thing. And while the rate was 1 percent for the first few years, the law FDR signed raised it incrementally in 1940, 1943, 1946 and 1949, when it reached 3 percent.
  3. Not Deductible. Also false is the statement that Social Security contributions "would be deductible from their income for tax purposes." The opposite is true. Section 803 of the law Roosevelt signed specifically says Social Security payroll taxes "shall not be allowed as a deduction to the taxpayer in computing his net income for the year." So the claim made later in the e-mail – that Democrats "eliminated the income tax deduction" for payroll taxes – cannot possibly be true. There was never a deduction to eliminate.

    Update, March 27: An alert reader points out that self-employed persons must pay "self-employment tax," which is a Social Security and Medicare tax similar to the taxes withheld from the pay of most wage earners. Half of the SE tax is indeed deductible when figuring adjusted gross income for federal income tax purposes. However, the SE tax deduction has not been eliminated, not by "the Democratic party" or by anybody else.

  4. Trust Fund Falsehoods. The message claims that FDR promised Social Security funds would be used "for no other government program," but that Lyndon Johnson and a Democratic Congress later took Social Security into the General Fund "so that Congress could spend it." This is twisted history. The government has always been able to use Social Security funds for other purposes when not needed to finance benefits. As DeWitt states: "[T]here has never been any change in the way the Social Security program is financed or the way that Social Security payroll taxes are used by the federal government." All LBJ did in 1968 was to make Social Security taxes and spending part of a "unified budget." As DeWitt notes, this was an accounting issue and "has no affect on the actual operations of the [Social Security] Trust Fund itself."
  5. Taxation of benefits. The e-mail also gets it wrong when it claims that Roosevelt promised that "annuity payments to the retirees would never be taxed as income." It’s true that Social Security benefits weren’t taxed at first, but DeWitt writes that this was the result of a series of administrative rulings by the Treasury Department, not the result of Roosevelt’s law or anything he did or promised. And contrary to a false claim made later in the e-mail, it was not Democrats alone who "started taxing Social Security annuities." Congress authorized taxation of Social Security benefits in 1983, when Republicans controlled the Senate, and the measure was signed into law by President Ronald Reagan, a Republican. The measure was part of a bipartisan compromise to shore up the finances of the system, which were then on the verge of collapse.

Nixon’s Gift to Immigrants

Another huge whopper in this e-mail is the claim that President Jimmy Carter and the Democratic Party "decided to start giving annuity payments to immigrants … even though they never paid a dime into it." In truth, no illegal immigrant is allowed to get a penny of Social Security retirement benefits, as this message implies. (We address more false claims on that theme in another Ask FactCheck.) And any immigrant who has become a citizen or legal resident can qualify only to the extent that they have worked and paid into the system for years, on the same basis as everybody else.

The earlier version of this e-mail made this claim only about the SSI program – the Supplemental Security Income program for the blind, disabled or elderly and destitute. But the truth is, that program was signed into law by Republican President Richard Nixon in 1972. Under Nixon’s SSI law, legal immigrants were eligible for benefits from the start. It is a federal welfare program funded out of general tax revenues and is separate from the Social Security old-age pensions and disability insurance programs funded out of dedicated payroll taxes. While Social Security benefits are paid to those who have paid payroll taxes for a certain minimum period of time, SSI benefits were available to all – citizens and legal residents alike – regardless of whether they had "paid a dime into it" or not.

Fake Jefferson Quote

The e-mail signs off with a quote that supposedly comes from Thomas Jefferson: "A government big enough to give you everything you want, is strong enough to take everything you have." But Jefferson never said that.

According to Monticello researchers and Jefferson scholars who maintain the online Jefferson Encyclopedia: "We have never found such a statement in Jefferson’s writings. As far as we know, this statement actually originates with [Republican President] Gerald R. Ford, who said, "A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have," in an address to a joint session of Congress on August 12, 1974."

The author of this urges others to send this message on, smugly suggesting,"If enough people receive this, maybe a seed of awareness will be planted." Hardly. What’s really being spread are seeds of ignorance – and a pack of clumsy lies.

-Brooks Jackson


DeWitt, Larry, "FAQs; Debunking Some Internet Myths; MYTHS AND MISINFORMATION ABOUT SOCIAL SECURITY" Social Security Administration undated Web page accessed 24 March 2009.

"Legislative History; Social Security Act of 1935" Sections 801 & 803." Social Security Administration undated Web page accessed 24 March 2009.

DeWitt, Larry, "Agency History; Research Notes & Special Studies by the Historian’s Office; /research Note #12: Taxation of Social Security Benefits" Social Security Administration Web page dated Feb 2001, accessed 24 March 2009.

Jackson, Brooks "Lies in the E-mail, Part 2" FactCheck.org Special Report 14 April 2004.

Jefferson Encyclopedia "Government big enough to supply you . . . (Quotation)" Web site article dated 6 March 2009, accessed 24 March 2009.