Social Security refers to the federal social insurance program in the United States, which provides financial and medical benefits to older Americans, as well as the disabled and some who have been widowed or orphaned by working age adults. All working Americans contribute to Social Security through a dedicated payroll tax. The Social Security controversy refers to a complex economic and philosophical debate over how Social Security should be funded, dispersed, and managed. Some advocate for its continuity as a federal program while others argue that social security should be privatized and removed from government control.
Formally called “Old-age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance” (OASDI), the Social Security program presents a fairly complex debate. There is relative consensus that reform is needed, but little agreement about the best way forward. In 2015, the total distributed Social Security benefits were $897 billion, which put the fund at a deficit of $70 billion. In fact, the Social Security program has seen a budget shortfall every year since 2011, and is projected to fall short of its annual outlay indefinitely. As a result, most observers agree that some level of policy reform is necessary. However, there are some stark differences in how observers feel this reform should be pursued.
There are two distinct philosophical imperatives driving the social security debate.
Though views tend to divide across political lines, with Republican office-holders more frequently supporting privatization, and Democratic office-holders more frequently supporting measured reform, this divide is something of a simplification. Social Security implicates a number of ideological disagreements concerning the government’s social responsibility to its population, the rights of individuals to control their wealth, and the general principles of free market economics.
The goal of this discussion is to examine the various perspectives shaping the public discussion over Social Security, and to provide you with a look at some of the figures past and present who have influenced this discussion. The figures selected may not always be household names, but are instead selected to provide a nuanced look at the public discourse on this subject, and in some cases, even to provide you with a list of individuals to contact as part of your research.
Much of the selective history outlined below is culled from a more exhaustive history produced by the Social Security Administration (SSA). The SSA provides a great source for understanding the early origins, gradual development, and ongoing debate surrounding Social Security in the U.S.
Though the Social Security program was several centuries away, the concept of social insurance did exist in Colonial America. The English Poor Law of 1601 was the first set of codified British laws designating taxation as a way to fund relief for the “deserving poor.” British colonists in the New World brought this basic philosophy with them, including the primary features of local control, the provision of “poorhouses,” and high levels of discrimination in determining who was “worthy” of assistance.
According to the Social Security Administration, this earliest form of relief was intentionally designed to shame recipients as a way of discouraging them from leaning on welfare services. Among these methods of discouragement, recipients of relief could “lose their personal property, the right to vote, the right to move, and in some cases were required to wear a large ‘P’ on their clothing to announce their status.”
While this approach sounds cruel, it does begin to shed some light on the ideological push and pull that still exists in the U.S. today, between the view that there is an economic imperative to provide basic support for the elderly, disabled, and impoverished; and the view that social welfare might in fact discourage capable individuals from working to improve their own situation. According to the SSA, “prevailing American attitudes toward poverty relief were always skeptical and the role of government was kept to the minimum. So much so that by as late as 1915 at most only 25% of the money spent on outdoor relief was from public funds.”
This attitude began to shift as a young America saw its first generation move toward retirement. In 1795, revolutionary pamphleteer Thomas Paine produced a work called Agrarian Justice, in which he called for a 10% inheritance tax on those inheriting property, so that a fund could be produced to provide an annual stipend of 10 pounds to each American over the age of 50. (In the same pamphlet, Paine also suggested that every American receive a one-time stipend of 15 pounds upon turning 21.)
Arguably the first true precursor to federal Social Security in the United States, the Civil War Pension was a response to the inescapable consequences of a nation at war with itself. One year into this bloody conflict, America’s population of disabled, widows, and orphans skyrocketed. The nation at conflict was increasingly deprived of countless household breadwinners. While this wasn’t the first military pension program in the U.S., 1862 marked the first time that a federally-controlled program distributed regular pension payments, in this case to soldiers disabled in the Civil War, or to their widows and orphans.
Over time, the scope of the fund grew to include Civil War veterans who were disabled outside of their military service (1890) and veterans reaching old age (1906). By 1910, over 90% of Civil War vets were receiving benefits. In many ways, the scope and nature of this fund would inform the eventual framework for Social Security.
As America transformed from an agrarian society to an industrial one, various changes precipitated a greater need for social insurance. Among them:
These trends magnified the core challenges facing a growing American economy, in particular the need to support a growing population of disabled, widowed, orphaned, and elderly adults who could not work. This meant that historical approaches to ensuring widespread economic security were due for reexamination.
In October of 1929, the Stock Market took a sudden plunge, touching off what became known as The Great Depression. Within three months of the Crash, the Stock Market had lost 40% of its value, accounting for more than $26 billion in wealth. Unemployment reached a rate of 25% as roughly 10,000 banks collapsed. The SSA reports that worker wages plummeted from $50 billion in 1929 to just $30 billion in 1932.
Widespread joblessness, homelessness, suffering, and economic despair gripped the United States throughout the 1930s. Various political movements spearheaded by figures like Louisiana Governor Huey Long and unemployed California doctor Francis E. Townsend helped to popularize novel plans for nationwide social insurance.
In 1932, Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected President of the United States, and he was carried into office by the promise of his New Deal. This was a sweeping package of reforms aimed at radically transforming the floundering U.S. economy. In doing so, it created a number of groundbreaking publicly funded programs that remain of major consequence today. Towering among these programs was the Social Security Adminsitration.
According to the SSA, “Social insurance, as conceived by President Roosevelt, would address the permanent problem of economic security for the elderly by creating a work-related, contributory system in which workers would provide for their own future economic security through taxes paid while employed. Thus it was an alternative both to reliance on welfare and to radical changes in our capitalist system.”
Roosevelt, in fact, viewed Social Security as a cornerstone to his New Deal. The Social Security Act was signed into law in August of 1935, creating a federal program that paid a continuing income to retired workers starting at age 65.
The SSA reports that the very first monthly Social Security benefits for retired workers, their wives or widows, children under the age of 18, and their surviving aged parents, were distributed starting on January 31, 1940.
Though the concept of social insurance had not originated in the United States, its new framework quickly became a model for the rest of the modernizing world. According to the SSA, a secret meeting between President Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill yielded the Atlantic Charter—a joint declaration laying out the founding principles of the United Nations. Among them was a shared dedication to social insurance in the spirit and design of the emergent Social Security program in the U.S.
Roosevelt’s version of Social Security would be a compromised version, one that did not ultimately include disability coverage or medical benefits as per his original vision. Both of these would become a part of the Social Security program in future years.
Under President Eisenhower, the Social Security Administration began to incorporate disability benefits in 1954. Subsequently, President Lyndon B. Johnson created one of the most significant additions to the existing program, signing the Medicare bill into law in 1965. This provided a new social insurance program extending health benefits to nearly all Americans 65 or older.
In the early 80s, Social Security faced a funding crisis, prompting then-president Ronald Reagan to initiate the Greenspan Commission. Their objective was to bring change to the Social Security and Medicare programs so as to improve their long-term viability. The Commission’s findings ultimately led to the introduction of taxation on Social Security benefits, extension of coverage to Federal employees, and a gradual increase of the retirement age.
Though Social Security is considered an essential part of the American economic infrastructure, it has continued to generate significant practical and ideological debate over the last several decades. In some cases, amendments or new legislation have altered certain conditions around Social Security. For instance:
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential figures concerning the issue of Social Security in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. Typically, we use a vetting function called the “leader penalty” to automatically exclude heads of state from our lists, largely because they tend to cast a dominant shadow over most issues regardless of their actual influence in certain areas. In this case, however, the role played by heads of state is relevant and, in fact, central to the debate. With or without the “leader penalty,” the list is dominated by U.S. presidents and presidential candidates, largely based on how they’ve impacted the public view and actual policy around Social Security. The list below is composed without the use of the “leader penalty.”
|2||George W. Bush|
|3||Franklin Delano Roosevelt|
|8||Harry S. Truman|
|9||Lyndon B. Johnson|
Using our own backstage Ranking Analytics tools, we’ve compiled a list of the most influential books on the topic of Social Security in the U.S. between 1900 and 2020. This list is vetted to exclude irrelevant results, particularly works of fiction with incidental keyword matches. The result is a list which demonstrates the notable conservative bent in those texts which have been most influential. Though several economics reference books are rightly included, the bulk of the list is composed of texts which make pro-privatization arguments, or which represent the views of prominent conservative economists and political figures.
|1||United States Code|
|2||The God of the Machine|
|3||The Constitution of Liberty|
|5||Winning the Future|
|6||The New Palgrave Dictionary of Economics|
|7||Capitalism and Freedom|
|8||A Choice Not an Echo|
|10||Free to Choose|
In 2006, then-president George W. Bush observed “Social security — they used to call it the third rail of American politics, because when you talked about it, you got singed, at the minimum.”
This feels like a relevant introduction to the debate today, largely because it underscores the way that Social Security has the capacity to impact such an enormous cross-section of Americans. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which calls Social Security “one of the nation’s most successful, effective, and popular programs,” more than 64 million people, or one in every six U.S. residents, collected benefits in June of 2020. 80% of these beneficiaries are older Americans, while the remainder receive benefits under Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or as young survivors of deceased workers.
The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) notes that Social Security is designed to align with the cost of living and that nearly every American will enjoy some degree of retirement protection through Social Security. The CBPP also notes that Social Security benefits are generally quite modest, with the average retirement benefit in June of 2020 totaling just $1,514 per month.
However, as noted in our introduction, several factors have contributed to an annual shortfall in Social Security funding since 2011. A combination of increased life expectancy and lower birth rates is producing a labor imbalance, in which the retirement age population is growing at a faster rate than the labor force. This imbalance has strained the Social Security budget and produced regular annual deficits, as well as growing concerns about the long-term sustainability of the current Social Security program.
While most participants in the public debate over Social Security agree that reform is needed, there is sharp disagreement about how best to achieve this reform. And while most presidential administrations will typically oversee some amendments or adjustments to Social Security, there have been few major policy initiatives which have truly confronted this issue in the last two decades.
Recent Republican presidential administrations, Congressional leaders, and conservative think tanks have pushed for privatization of Social Security in lieu of federal oversight, and have also pushed for the creation of Private Retirement Accounts that would ultimately allow Americans to build their own retirement funds rather than funding the federal Social Security program through payroll taxes. Recent Democratic presidential administrations, Congressional leaders, and liberal think tanks have urged for the preservation of Social Security through heightened payroll taxes, higher social security benefit taxation, and the strategic redistribution of public funding.
Our goal in presenting subjects that generate controversy is to provide you with a sense of some of the figures both past and present who have driven debate, produced widely-recognized works of research, literature or art, proliferated their ideas widely, or who are identified directly and publicly with some aspect of this debate. By identifying the researchers, activists, journalists, educators, academics, and other individuals connected with this debate—and by taking a closer look at their work and contributions—we can get a clear but nuanced look at the subject matter. Rather than framing the issue as one side versus the other, we bring various dimensions of the issue into discussion with one another. This will likely include dimensions of the debate that resonate with you, some dimensions that you find repulsive, and some dimensions that might simply reveal a perspective you hadn’t previously considered.
On the subject of Social Security, the debate requires us to consider both advocates of privatization and those who have worked to preserve the long-term viability of the publicly-funded form of Social Security. Because this is a complex subject that defies over-simplification, identifying influencers requires us to dig a little deeper into certain key terms, such as “social insurance,” “Social Security privatization” and “Social Security Administration.” Likewise, given the complexity of the subject matter, some of most notable voices in the public debate come from well-funded think tanks or lobby groups. This accounts for the inclusion of key terms such as The Heritage Foundation, the CATO Institute, and the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP). Taken together, these key terms should deliver us to a nuanced understanding of some key influencers and their position in the public debate.
Our InfluenceRanking engine gives us the power to scan the academic and public landscape surrounding the Social Security issue using key terminology to identify consequential influencers. As with any topic that generates public debate and disagreement, this is a subject of great depth and breadth. We do not claim to probe either to the bottom of this depth or the borders of this breadth. Instead, we offer you one way to enter into this debate, to identify key players, and through their contributions to the debate, to develop a fuller understanding of the issue and perhaps even a better sense of where you stand.
For a closer look at how our InfluenceRankings work, check out our methodology.
Otherwise get started with a look at the key words we used to explore this subject:
The primary key term in our discussion, Social Security refers to the social insurance program that was a cornerstone of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal. Beginning with the first monthly payments in 1940, Social Security is considered one of the most successful social service programs. Today’s Social Security program uses a payroll tax to produce a fund to benefit retirees and the disabled. Many of the influencers produced using this search term were early leaders in the development and administration of the program.
Social insurance refers to the basic principle underlying the Social Security program, which holds that broad economic stability and health depends on the ability of a nation to provide care and support for those who can’t work, including the elderly and disabled. Influencers produced using this search term include academics and economists who generally advocate for a sustainable form of nationwide social insurance such as the current system.
Often presented as a solution to many of the grievances held by critics of the Social Security program, privatization may refer to a number of measures aimed at reforming the existing program. Among those reforms, advocates of privatization have called for administration of the Social Security program by an entity other than the federal government, are critical of the use of a common payroll tax to fund relief for some Americans, and believe that alternatives such as Private Retirement Accounts offer Americans more freedom to control their own wealth. Influencers produced by this search tend to include prominent conservative thinkers, attorneys, and political figures.
A conservative think tank with strong ties to the movement for privatization of Social Security, the CATO Institute produces research and writing supporting an overhaul of Social Security. While individuals produced by this search aren’t all inherently tied to matters of Social Security policy, their broader influence as members of the CATO Institute make them leading figures in the wider conservative movement, which gives root to the call for privatization.
Like the CATO Institute, the Heritage Foundation is a conservative think tank with strong ties to the movement for privatization of Social Security. The Foundation generally advocates an overhaul of Social Security. While individuals produced by this search aren’t all inherently tied to matters of Social Security policy, their broader influence as members of the Heritage Foundation makes them leading figures in the wider conservative movement and its broad philosophical push toward greater privatization.
Referring to the chief public agency charged with overseeing the Social Security Program, the Social Security Administration (SSA) was formed in 1935, and includes figures who have worked in advocacy of Social Security as a public service, and who have helped to manifest reforms and amendments to Social Security across its 85-year history. Influencers identified here generally played central roles in constructing and leading the program that we know today.
Formed in 1958, the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) is among the most powerful policy lobby and advocacy groups in U.S. politics. With more than 38 million members, the AARP focuses on policy issues of consequence to Americans over the age of 50. In doing so, it has long taken an active and vocal stance on Social Security, advocating for the protection and improvement of the existing public program while lobbying against efforts at privatization. Influencers included here are those who have helped to formulate the AARP mission, or to advocate publicly for its top causes, including the protection of Social Security and Medicare benefits for older Americans.
If you would like to study this topic in more depth, check out these key organizations...
Interested in building toward a career on the front lines of the Social Security debate? As you can see, there are many different avenues into this far-reaching issue. Use our Custom College Ranking to find:
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