Steven A. Levine
Coordinator for Educational Programs
President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Postmaster-General James A. Farley,
and Senator Robert F. Wagner, circa 1936.
Seventy seven years ago today, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. New York’s Senator Robert F. Wagner was the law’s lead sponsor in the Senate and he had been a fierce advocate of this legislation to protect the elderly, unemployed and children.* In May of 1935, he gave a speech on WEVD, a mostly Yiddish language radio station, to rally support. In the midst of the Great Depression and mass unemployment, he set forth a vision of the United States based on economic security for all, particularly the most vulnerable.
The time has come when our government, backed by overwhelming sentiment of the American people, is prepared to raise men from a level below that of machines and place them on a higher level. It is our objective to lighten the burdens of unemployment, of uncared for childhood, and of neglected old age, thus making life more enjoyable and secure for the vast majority of Americans. (Senator Wagner’s complete speech can be read here.)
As the presidential candidates today debate the future of the programs begun by the Social Security Act in 1935 and our nation and the world confront a new economic crisis, Senator Wagner’s words and vision are well worth remembering.
*While the law increased security for many Americans, it also excluded many women, African-Americans and other minorities by not initially covering agricultural workers, domestics, teachers, nurses, and social workers. Southern Democrats in Congress used their political power to prevent the inclusion of most African-Americans.