Abraham Epstein was the leading proponent of social security in the United States in the 1930s; he even supposedly coined the term to describe his ideas. He founded the American Association for Social Security. But after FDR signed a bill establishing Social Security, Epstein returned to The Nation, where he had previously written on the subject, to express doubts about the program the president had eventually agreed to. Its limitations, Epstein feared, would doom the “social insurance” movement in the United States. Now, at a time when the only debate we ever get to hear about Social Security is prompted by calls for its curtailment or privatization, it’s interesting to read the words of the man to whom, above all, really, we owe the entire system, who recognized Social Security as at best a half-measure, a preliminary victory in a longer and broader war.

The social-security bill was signed by the President on August 14 with a succession of pens and under flood lights—as if to make up for the previous lack of publicity accorded to it. Never before in the history of this or any other country has a bill of such great scope and import been passed with public opinion in such a daze about the issues. Unfortunately the present law seems doomed from the start by its complex, slovenly, and mangled character….

The effect this bill may have on the American social-insurance movement is of vital importance. Social insurance is recognized today as offering the only practicable instrument for meeting the problem of insecurity arising from modern industrial development. It is used in communist as well as capitalist and fascist countries. Its chief asset lies in its power to distribute the cost over all groups in society—the rich as well as the poor. But in placing the entire burden of insecurity upon the workers and industry, to the exclusion of the well-to-do in the nation, the present social-security bill violates the most essential modern principles of social insurance. There is also grave danger that the administrative perplexities inherent in the bill, to say nothing of possible court nullification, may deal a death blow to the entire movement in the United States.

August 14, 1935

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