OTD in History… August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act

By Bonnie K. Goodman, BA, MLIS

On this day in history August 14, 1935, President Franklin Roosevelt signs into law the Social Security Act guaranteeing an income to Americans over 65-years-old, the law was part of Roosevelt’s sweeping New Deal social reforms. The first part related to recovery and curbing the economic depression and the second phase was social reform. Roosevelt believed the government should help those in need and that philosophy was the bedrock of his New Deal program that swept him into office in 1932. From almost the moment he stepped into the presidency, Roosevelt began the preliminary plans and studies to initiate his reform agenda for the largest government assistance program to the public in American history. Subsequently, Democratic presidents have built on Roosevelt’s foundation.

In a June 8, 1934, address to Congress, Roosevelt discussed the importance and components of his reform policies and that he instructed Congress to pass legislation. Roosevelt stated, “I have commenced to make, with the greatest of care, the necessary actuarial and other studies necessary for the formulation of plans for the consideration of the Seventy-fourth Congress. These three great objectives– the security of the home, the security of livelihood, and the security of social insurance– are, it seems to me, a minimum of the promise that we can offer to the American people. They constitute a right, which belongs to every individual and every family willing to work. They are the essential fulfillment of measures already taken toward relief, recovery, and reconstruction.”

The elderly were becoming a growing segment of the population most did not work, and they needed aid, the only way to accomplish that was through the federal government to ensure lack of repetition. Throughout the depression, the calls to provide for the elderly increased as did pressure on Roosevelt, who viewed unemployment as the more pressing issue. On June 29, 1934, Roosevelt created through an executive order the Committee on Economic Security (C.E.S.) to begin the process of what would become the Social Security Act. Roosevelt formally introduced his reform agenda in his January 4, 1935, annual address to Congress. The CES issued their final report on January 15, 1935, where they recommended that the federal government would pay for the pension program, they would administer “voluntary annuities,” and that the “compulsory old-age insurance” would be given to those who earn less than $250,00 a month. (Ferrara and Tanner, 21)

Two days later Democratic Senator Robert Wagner of New York and Representatives David Lewis of Maryland and R.L. Doughton of North Carolina introduced legislation that would evolve into the Social Security Act. Although the law primary dealt with the elderly, it began the modern welfare system, providing for unemployment insurance, child aid, and welfare, public health, for those with disabilities. Congress, however, chose not to include a compulsory health insurance in the law, leaving that issue to the states. Health care remains an issue despite legislation in 2010. The House of Representatives passed the bill with a vote of 371–33 and the Senate passed it with a vote of 76 to 6.

In a statement Roosevelt delivered when he signed the bill, Roosevelt expressed, “Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last.” Continuing Roosevelt said, ‘’This Social Security measure gives at last some protection to 30,000,000 of our citizens who will reap direct benefits through unemployment compensation, through old-age pensions and through increased services for the protection of children and the prevention of ill health.” Roosevelt, however, noted, “We can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life. But we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age.”

According to legal scholar Cass Sunstein in his book The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution — And Why We Need It More Than Ever, “The commitment to social security [is] probably Roosevelt’s proudest achievement.” (Sunstein, 15) Each subsequent Democratic president has either built or tried to reform Roosevelt’s social welfare policies, while many Republicans spoke out against it, in the end, they never dismantled it, a testament to the lasting legacy of Roosevelt’s agenda.


Ferrara, Peter J, and Michael Tanner. A New Deal for Social Security. Washington, DC: Cato Institute, 1998.

Sunstein, Cass R. The Second Bill of Rights: FDR’s Unfinished Revolution and Why We Need It More Than Ever. New York: Basic Books, 2006.

Bonnie K. Goodman has a BA and MLIS from McGill University and has done graduate work in religion at Concordia University. She is a journalist, librarian, historian & editor, and a former Features Editor at the History News Network & reporter at Examiner.com where she covered politics, universities, religion and news. She has a dozen years experience in education & political journalism.

Bonnie K. Goodman BA, MLIS (McGill University) is a Professional Librarian (CBPQ) & historian. Former editor @ History News Network & reporter @ Examiner.com.

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