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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Obama’s Social Security Stumble

President Barack Obama rewrote the history of the Social Security system during a Dec. 7 press conference, claiming that only widows and orphans originally benefited from the program. Obama was defending a deal the administration reached recently with congressional Republicans to extend the Bush tax cuts for all Americans for another two years:

Obama, Dec. 7: And that means because it’s a big, diverse country and people have a lot of complicated positions, it means that in order to get stuff done, we’re going to compromise. This is why FDR, when he started Social Security, it only affected widows and orphans.

But the president’s claim is not true. When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law in 1935, benefits were not originally intended just for widows and orphans. From the SSA’s own historical page:

SSA: The two major provisions relating to the elderly were Title I- Grants to States for Old-Age Assistance, which supported state welfare programs for the aged, and Title II-Federal Old-Age Benefits. It was Title II that was the new social insurance program we now think of as Social Security. In the original Act benefits were to be paid only to the primary worker when he/she retired at age 65. Benefits were to be based on payroll tax contributions that the worker made during his/her working life. Taxes would first be collected in 1937 and monthly benefits would begin in 1942. (Under amendments passed in 1939, payments were advanced to 1940.)

In fact, according to the SSA, the first known applicant for a lump-sum Social Security payment was a man named Ernest Ackerman, a retired motorman in Cleveland. It wasn’t until 1939 that the Social Security law was amended to provide benefits for widows and orphans:

SSA: The original Act provided only retirement benefits, and only to the worker. The 1939 Amendments made a fundamental change in the Social Security program. The Amendments added two new categories of benefits: payments to the spouse and minor children of a retired worker (so-called dependents benefits) and survivors benefits paid to the family in the event of the premature death of a covered worker. This change transformed Social Security from a retirement program for workers into a family-based economic security program.

It was on the Social Security Act’s third anniversary on Aug. 15, 1938, that President Roosevelt delivered a radio address saying that he had directed the Social Security board to address providing benefits for widows and orphans. "Some time ago I directed the Social Security Board to give attention to the development of a plan for liberalizing and extending the old-age insurance system to provide benefits for wives, widows and orphans," he said.

Obama’s larger point was valid; Social Security was enacted as a compromise. An official treatise on the program’s historical background says: "The Social Security Act did not quite achieve all the aspirations its supporters had hoped." Many workers were not covered at first, including government workers, railroad employees, the self-employed, farm and domestic workers, and employees of nonprofit organizations. According to SSA, only about 60 percent of the workforce was covered by the system’s Old-Age Insurance program. But contrary to what the president said, widows and orphans weren’t covered until four years after the program was first approved.

The original act did also provide aid to states to help financially support mothers and dependent children at the time. But it wasn’t solely dedicated to that purpose, and that money wasn’t part of what we now think of as Social Security.

This isn’t the first time the president has made the error when discussing Social Security’s origins. The conservative Media Research Center’s Newsbusters.org found the president made a similar claim during an interview with Comedy Central’s Jon Stewart back in October of this year.