The New Deal delivers its greatest gift to the American people, but there’s a catch: they’ll have to pay for it.
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 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 subject of social insurance, in which economics, politics, statistics, social policy, trade unionism, wages, and industrial production are intertwined, was barely discussed in the United States prior to the President’s message to Congress in June, 1934, when he promised to undertake “the great task of furthering the security of the citizen and his family through social insurance.” For more than half a century social-insurance programs have been keen political issues throughout Europe, but here there has not been even academic interest; our newspapers gave the subject no notice until a year ago and have given it very little since. Everywhere abroad social-insurance measures have been championed chiefly by organized labor. Our labor movement has either opposed them or given half-hearted and uninformed support.
No wonder, therefore, that the President’s speech of June 8, 1934, fell like a bombshell on the country. The most ardent advocates of social insurance in America were bewildered by its boldness and political audacity. Even more deluding was the almost universal approval which greeted the speech. Everybody jumped on the social-security bandwagon. Governors made it their campaign issues. Congressmen spoke for it. Candidates for state legislatures made it a plank in their platforms. Even candidates for city councils and sheriff’s offices felt compelled to declare themselves in favor of social security. And when, on November 6, 1934, the American electorate gave the President the most Democratic Congress in two generations, hopes were raised sky-high.
Like all nine days’ wonders, it was too good to be true. The President spoke of “social security,” and who could be against that? True, he did mention “social insurance,” but why bother to discover the meaning of so strange a term? Of several hundred articles and newspaper stories on social security appearing during the past year, less than a score attempted an analysis of social insurance. Social security was identified with old-age pensions, for an ardent twenty-year campaign for old-age security had brought about a tremendous popular demand for old-age protection. More than half the states had actually adopted pension laws. This movement had gained such popularity that it attracted a galaxy of nondescript promoters ranging from the Fraternal Order of Eagles to the messianic Dr. Townsend. The country was thus clamoring for old-age pensions. But the Administration, symbolized by Madame Secretary Perkins, seemed for a while almost totally unaware of this uproar. Miss Perkins had been principally concerned with the problem of unemployment insurance. As late as November 14, 1934, there was an attempt to confine the federal program to unemployment insurance. At that time the President, in a speech admittedly prepared under Miss Perkins’s supervision, said, “I do not know whether this is the time for any federal legislation on old-age security.”