Social Work Social Security in the United States (OASDHI)
Stephen H. Gorin
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0147


Social Security is the fundamental social welfare program in the United States. Enacted in 1935 and amended several times, Social Security provides services and support to a wide range of individuals. This entry will focus on the background to, and the basic structure of, the act—Old Age, Survivors, and Disability Insurance program (OASDI)—and Medicare, which was enacted as Title XVIII of Social Security in 1965. It also includes an examination of the current status of the program and the often heated debate over the future of Social Security.

General Overviews

Discussion of the history of social insurance and Social Security can be found in a wide range of sources, including works by social workers, sociologists, economists, political scientists, and others. Altman 2005 provides an excellent overview of Social Security from the early 1900s through 2005. Baker and Weisbrot 1999 provides a critique of efforts to demonstrate Social Security was in serious crisis and required fundamental restructuring. Berkowitz 1995 examines the life of Wilbur Cohen, who had close ties to social work, and was perhaps the leading figure in the development of Social Security between 1935 and 1965. Abe Bortz traces the origins and emergence of Social Security from the English Poor Laws through the New Deal (Historical Development of the Social Security Act). Kingson 2008 presents from a social work perspective a succinct overview of the development and structure of Social Security. Quadagno 1988 examines the enactment and development of Social Security in relation to conflict between labor and business groups over old age pensions. As part of a special collection, the Social Security Administration (SSA) has provided a detailed discussion of the origins and emergence of Social Security and a review of key developments and changes in the program through 2009 (Historical Background and Development of Social Security). Brown, et al. 2009 is an edited book of readings that addresses Social Security in light of changing demographic, economic, and other trends.

Data Sources

A variety of sources provide information and data about Social Security. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities provides analyses of a wide range of issues, including Social Security. The Center for Economic and Policy Research supplies data and commentary about a range of issues, including a Social Security Monitor. The National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare includes analyses of public opinion and commentary on Social Security. The National Academy of Social Insurance provides a wide range of data on issues related to social insurance, including Social Security. The Heritage Foundation and the Cato Institute each address a range of policy issues, including Social Security. The National Bureau of Economic Research disseminates research articles on a range of issues, including social insurance and Social Security. Social Security Works provides a wide range of data on all aspects of Social Security. The Social Security Administration’s Research, Statistics, & Policy Analysis provides a considerable volume of data and statistical information about Social Security.


Information about Social Security can be found in a range of journals. The American Economic Review addresses a wide range of issues, including retirement security and Social Security. Challenge: The Magazine of Economic Affairs provides articles and data on a wide range of economic issues, including articles on Social Security. Public Policy and Aging Report addresses a range of aging issues, including retirement security and Social Security. Social Security Bulletin, a publication of the Social Security Administration, includes analyses and data addressing a wide range of issues related to Social Security, retirement security, and aging. Written from a progressive perspective, the American Prospect addresses a wide range of issues, including Social Security. A publication of the Gerontology Society of America, the Gerontologist “provides a multidisciplinary perspective on human aging,” and it publishes articles on research, program developments, and policy analysis, including articles on Social Security. The Journal of Economic Perspectives seeks to “fill a gap between the general interest press and most other academic economics journals.” It includes some articles on Social Security and related issues.


Social Security has deep roots in US history. Paine 1797, written by a leading American revolutionary, advocates the creation of a “national fund” to provide assistance for young people and older adults. Seager 1910 provides “one of the first American books on social insurance.” In its Progressive Platform of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Party called for “a system of social insurance adapted to American use.” Schlabach 1969 reviews pre-1935 debates over poverty and social welfare and the emergence of social insurance. A 1938 issue of Life magazine (“Old age”) provides an overview of the situation of older adults in the United States at the time of Social Security’s enactment. Skocpol and Ikenberry 1995 examines the background to, and the structural limits of, Social Security. Thompson and Upp 1997 evaluates the social insurance approach to income support.

Responses to the Depression

The Great Depression, and the hardship it inflicted, provides a necessary backdrop to, and context for, understanding the emergence of Social Security. Black 2002–2011 examines efforts by Communists in Washington State to organize unemployed workers. The Social Security Administration website includes material related to Father Coughlin (Father Coughlin and the Search for “Social Justice”), Huey Long (Huey Long’s Senate Speeches), and Francis Townsend (The Townsend Plan Movement), all of whom (though from different perspectives) advocated radical restructuring of the nation’s economy. Schlabach 1969 discusses the response of radical social workers to the Depression. This section also includes President Hoover’s Views on the Depression, an analysis of the cause of the Great Depression.

Committee on Economic Security

In 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed a Committee on Economic Security (CES), chaired by Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, that made recommendations to Roosevelt that culminated in the establishment of Social Security. Liu 2001 reviews the committee’s work, examining the experience of other countries with social insurance programs. In an address to Congress, Roosevelt in 1934 (Roosevelt 1934a, Roosevelt 1934b) stated that he was “looking for a sound means which I can recommend to provide at once security against several of the great disturbing factors in life—especially those which relate to unemployment and old age.” Schlesinger 1988 discusses the work of the CES in a chapter that examines the background to, and the development of, Social Security. Witte 1955 discusses the author’s experience as executive director and secretary of the CES. This section also includes Roosevelt’s executive order creating the Committee on Economic Security (US Social Security Administration 1934) as well as unpublished studies from the Committee on Economic Security (US Social Security Administration 1935) and Social Security Board (Social Security Board 1937), which summarizes the work of the CES.

Social Security

Social Security became law on 14 August 1935. In addition to providing old age insurance and unemployment benefits, the act included grants to the states, including old age assistance, aid to dependent children, and child welfare. DeWitt 2010 discusses the controversial decision to exclude agricultural and domestic workers from the original act and the 1937 Supreme Court decision upholding the legislation. Domhoff 2009, written by a prominent power elite theorist, examines the background to, and development of, Social Security. Landon 1936, written by the Republican candidate for president, expresses opposition to Social Security, using arguments still heard today. Trattner 1998 analyzes the background to, and the development of, Social Security. This section also includes the 1935 congressional debates on Social Security (US Social Security Administration 1935) and the Social Security Act signed into law by President Roosevelt in August 1935 (see Social Security Act of 1935). Hamilton and Hamilton 1997 discusses efforts by civil rights organizations and others to include African Americans in New Deal and other social welfare programs.

Amendments of 1939

Roosevelt viewed Social Security as a work in progress, which would be updated and modified. While the original legislation provided old age insurance only to individual workers, the 1939 amendments expanded protection to family members—namely, dependents and survivors. The amendments also created the Social Security Trust Fund. DeWitt 2010, written by the Social Security historian, provides a brief overview of the 1939 amendments. The Advisory Council on Social Security (Advisory Council on Social Security 1938) laid the basis for the 1939 amendments. This section also includes a letter from Franklin Roosevelt to the chair of the Social Security Advisory Board (Roosevelt 1938a), the text of a radio speech in which Roosevelt calls for extending Social Security to everyone needing “its protection” (Roosevelt 1938b), statements by Roosevelt in 1939 on signing the amendments (see Roosevelt 1939), and the Social Security Amendments of 1939 (Social Security Amendments of 1939). Reed and Reed 1940, written by two Republican Party officials, summarizes the Republican position on New Deal Programs, including Social Security. According to the authors, a significant segment of the Republican Party supported “out right pensions without reference either to contributory character and those based or need.”

War Years

Although Social Security was not a major issue during the World War II years, the program was discussed in the context of the nation’s war effort. Roosevelt 1944 identifies security in “old age” as part of the president’s Economic Bill of Rights. DeWitt 2005 discusses Roosevelt’s well-known comment that he chose payroll taxes as a source of funding for Social Security to “give the contributors a legal, moral, and political right to collect their pensions and their unemployment benefits.” In their famed Atlantic Charter (see Text of the Atlantic Charter), Roosevelt and British prime minister Winston Churchill envisioned a postwar world that would provide “improved labor standards, economic advancement and social security.”

Amendments of 1950

The 1950 amendments to Social Security expanded coverage to self-employed people, domestic and agricultural workers, and others. The public assistance provisions were also expanded to include individuals who are permanently and totally disabled, and parents of children receiving assistance under the Aid to Dependent Children program. Cohen and Myers 1950 provides an overview of the amendments as well as a summary of their background and development. The Advisory Council 1948 recommended changes that were eventually incorporated in the amendments. This section also includes remarks by President Harry Truman on signing the amendments into law (Truman 1950).

Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)

Although the inclusion of disability insurance in Social Security had been debated since the 1930s, such coverage was not enacted until 1956 with the creation of SSDI, which also received its own trust fund. Berkowitz 2000 reviews the history and development of disability insurance. Schottland 1956 reviews the 1956 amendments, which created SSDI.

Advisory Council on Financing of 1957–1959

The 1956 amendments also created an Advisory Council on Social Security Financing to investigate the financing of Social Security. In response to questions from the council, the Treasury Department addressed concerns about the financing of the program, particularly related to investment of the Trust Fund (see Advisory Council on Social Security Financing 1957–1959a). The staff of the Advisory Council addressed misunderstandings concerning Social Security financing (see Advisory Council on Social Security 1957–1959b). Interestingly, some misunderstandings raised in the paper that was produced, such as the belief that “most trust fund assets are fictitious because they are IOUs issued by the federal government to itself,” continue to be held by many today.

Medicare and Medicaid

Although many advocates and policymakers had hoped that the original Social Security Act would include national health insurance (NHI), opposition from the American Medical Association and others led Roosevelt to decide not include NHI in the legislation. After the failure of later efforts to enact NHI, supporters began advocating for government-sponsored insurance for older adults. These efforts culminated in 1965 in the amendment of Social Security to include Medicare (Title 18) and Medicaid (Title 19). Corning 1969 traces the background of Medicare and its development from “idea to law.” DeWitt 2003 discusses the little-known role of Lyndon Johnson in the enactment of Medicare. In a look at the first thirty years of Medicare and Medicaid, Master and Taniguchi 1996 reviews the impact of these programs on individuals with disabilities. Rowland and Lyons 1996 examines the impact of Medicare and Medicaid on older adults with low incomes. This section also includes Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 comments on signing Medicare and Medicaid into law (see Johnson 1965).

Amendments of 1972

The 1972 amendments to Social Security introduced significant changes to the program. The most important of these included the adoption of an annual Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) (before this, benefit increases had required an act of Congress) and the creation of Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which shifted responsibility for financing for Aid to the Blind, Aid to the Totally and Permanently Disabled, and Old Age Assistance programs from the states to the federal government. Ball 1973 presents an overview of the 1972 amendments. This section also includes remarks by President Richard Nixon (Nixon 1972) on signing the amendments into law.

Commission and Amendments of 1983

By 1981, it appeared possible that the Old Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund could run out of money in 1983. Congress and the president appointed a National Commission on Social Security Reform, chaired by Alan Greenspan, to address the crisis. The recommendations of this bipartisan commission were later incorporated into the 1983 amendments to Social Security. These amendments made several changes, including expanding coverage to federal employees (including members of Congress), increasing payroll tax rates, and, beginning in 2003, gradually raising the full retirement age to 67. Gregory, et al. 2010 analyzes the 1983 reforms and considers their implications for today. The National Commission on Social Security Reform produced a report outlining recommendations for changing the program (National Commission on Social Security Reform 1983). Svahn and Ross 1983 summarizes the legislative history and provisions of the 1983 amendments. The section also includes a summary of the amendments (Summary of P. L. 98-21 (H. R. 1900): Social Security Amendments of 1983—Signed on April 20, 1983).

Advisory Council of 1994–1996

As a result of legislation enacted in 1994, Social Security became an independent agency and a Social Security Advisory Board replaced Advisory Councils, which had been constituted every four years to review the status of the program. The last Advisory Council, which met between 1994 and 1996, examined Social Security’s long-range prospects. The report issued by the Advisory Council of 1994–1996 on Social Security (Advisory Council 1997) included three sets of recommendations. The first option retained “the present Social Security benefit and tax structure essentially as is,” with some relatively minor changes. A second option introduced “individual accounts” while preserving “social adequacy protections.” The third moved Social Security “toward a system of relatively large individual accounts” that would “take the place of the present . . . system.” In an appendix, the council noted that the growth in the long-term deficit between 1983 and 1995 stemmed largely from an unanticipated increase in the number of SSDI beneficiaries, changes in “economic assumptions,” and changes in means of estimating future costs.

White House Conference on Social Security

By the mid-1990s, Social Security had become a heated issue. In 1998, President Bill Clinton convened the only White House Conference on Social Security. During the conference, a wide range of views were heard. This section includes Statements from Participants and remarks by the president in opening the conference in 1998 (Clinton 1998).

George W. Bush and Private Accounts

In May 2001, George W. Bush created a Commission to Strengthen Social Security. According to Executive Order 13210, the commission’s recommendations needed to “include individually controlled, voluntary personal retirement accounts, which will augment the Social Security safety net” (Office of Human Resources and Education 2001). In their Interim Report, the members of the commission noted that “all generations of Americans must be encouraged to save and invest more”; individuals had “little . . . sense of what they are entitled to,”; “[m]any” people had “lost confidence in ever receiving anything back”; and the “current system is financially unsustainable” (President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security 2001a). In its final report, “Strengthening Social Security and Creating Personal Wealth for All Americans,” the commission developed “three reform plans,” each of which would “modernize” the system through “voluntary personal accounts” (President’s Commission to Strengthen Social Security 2001b). Aaron, et al. 2001 critiques the commission’s proposals. DeWitt 2005 examines the costs of “transition” to a system of individual retirement accounts. Furman 2005 and Geanakoplos, et al. 1998 explore whether private accounts would “really pay a higher rate of return” than Social Security. Diamond and Orszag 2005 offers an approach to “saving Social Security” that does not include individual accounts, and DeWitt 2005 provides an examination of the transition costs of personal accounts.

People of Color and Social Security

Some theorists and policy analysts have argued that Social Security is unfair to people of color. Kranish 2005 explores the question of Social Security’s impact on African Americans and other groups. Beach and Davis 1998 is a response to critics in which the authors summarize their argument that African Americans and Hispanic Americans would receive a better “rate of return” from private investment accounts than from Social Security. Goss 1998 provides a critique of the analyses in Beach and Davis 1998. Hendley and Bilimoria 1999 examines the impact of Social Security on minorities. Torres-Gil, et al. 2005 investigates the impact of Social Security on “the Hispanic community.” Leigh 2011 examines misconceptions about the impact of Social Security on African Americans. AARP Public Policy Institute 2010 examines the importance of Social Security to the retirement income of minorities. This section also includes the article from the Social Security Administration titled “Social Security Is Important to African Americans” (Social Security Administration 2010) on the importance of Social Security to African Americans.


The impact of Social Security on women has been a controversial issue. A report by the National Economic Council Interagency Working Group on Social Security (National Economic Council Interagency Working Group on Social Security 1998) discusses the importance of Social Security to women. Schobel 2011 addresses “gaps in Social Security protection” that affect women. National Women’s Law Center 2011 presents “key facts” on women and Social Security. Tamborini and Whitman 2007 analyzes “important linkages between sociodemographic trends in marital patterns, the Social Security program, and its beneficiaries.” Estes, et al. 2012 examines inequities facing women in the Social Security system and presents proposals for addressing them. This section also includes a Fact Sheet from the Social Security Administration examining the importance of Social Security to women (Social Security Administration 2011).

Young People

Some critics and policy analysts have argued that Social Security and other programs for older adults impose an unfair burden on young people. Williamson, et al. 1999 is an edited book of readings examining the “generational equity debate” from a range of perspectives. Kingson, et al. 1986 criticizes “the framing of issues in terms of competition and conflict between generations,” arguing that generations are in fact interdependent and young people have a stake “in programs that assist the elderly” (pp. 13–14). In an examination of “myths about Social Security and other intergenerational transfers,” Eisner 1995 argues that the future of both young people and older adults depends on “private responsibility and enlightened public policy” (p. 121, p. 144). Reno and Walker 2011 examines the impact on young people of cuts in Social Security. Lavery and Reno 2008 addresses children’s stake in Social Security. Sawhill and Monea 2008 argues that the nation should “tear up the intergenerational contract and construct public policy around” young people (p. 1). Aaron 2010 questions the belief that public expenditures for older adults “crowd out spending at other stages of life” and will “place a heavy tax burden on the children of today when they grow up to be working-age adults” (p. 1).

Current Status

In recent years, the status of Social Security has become a focus of intense political debate. This section includes the two most authoritative sources of information on the program: the Annual Report of the Board of Trustees of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance and Federal Disability Insurance Trust Funds (Board of Trustees 2011) and the Congressional Budget Office’s (CBO) 2011 Long-Term Projections for Social Security: Additional Information (Congressional Budget Office 2011). Goss 2011 addresses the status of Social Security in the author’s testimony before the House Committee on Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. Congressional Budget Office 2010 also summarizes various options for addressing Social Security’s financing shortfall. Reno and Lavery 2009 provides a detailed discussion of the options for addressing the shortfall. National Academy of Social Insurance 2011 constitutes a nonpartisan fact sheet that addresses common questions about Social Security.

Conservative Perspectives

Since Social Security’s enactment, some conservatives have opposed the program and advocated its repeal. In recent years, most conservatives have advocated replacing Social Security, in one way or another, with a system of private accounts or by cutting benefits to future retirees. Butler and Germanis 1983 advocates a “Leninist strategy,” involving coalition building for replacing Social Security with a system of private accounts. Ferrara and Tanner 1998 advocates “a new Social Security system based on private markets and individual control,” and the authors describe what such a system might look like (p. 1). Friedman 1999 contends that critics of private accounts misunderstood the issue of the cost involved in changing to a new system. Feldstein and Liebman 2000 examines the “distributional effects of an investment-based Social Security system,” and the authors find that “virtually all of the demographic groups” they examined “would receive higher average benefits under a mixed system with an investment-based component than the benefits that they would receive under current Social Security rules.” Representative Paul Ryan (R-WI) advocates giving individuals under the age of 55 “the option of investing over one third of their current Social Security taxes into personal retirement accounts” (Ryan 2010). Biggs 2011 constitutes testimony before the Social Security Subcommittee of the House Ways and Means Committee in which Biggs advocates “achieving long-range solvency principally by extending work lives and slowing the growth of benefits for middle and higher earners.” Blahous 2011, written by a member of the Board of Trustees of the Social Security Trust Funds, criticizes “five myths” that the author believes have misled the public about the actual status of Social Security and Medicare.

Liberal Perspectives

In response to conservative criticism of Social Security, most liberals have defended the current structure of Social Security while acknowledging the need for minor changes. Marmor, et al. 1992 examines myths about the Social Security “crisis.” Baker and Weisbrot 1999 provides a strong defense of Social Security in its current form. Altman 2005 presents a proposal that would strength Social Security without private accounts or raising the retirement age. Reno and Lavery 2006 argues that “Many options exist to balance Social Security finances for baby boomers and those who follow” (p. 1). Reno 2011 argues the “case against cutting Social Security.” Kingson and Altman 2011 examines the debate over raising Social Security’s retirement age; the authors note that “raising” the “normal retirement age is mathematically indistinguishable from an across-the-board cut for retirees” (p. 6). Herd 2011 examines the impact on women of increasing the retirement age for Social Security.

  • Altman, Nancy. 2005. The ideal, pain-free (for almost everyone) way to strengthen social security. In The battle for social security: From FDR’s vision to Bush’s gamble. By Nancy Altman, 297–310. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley.

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    Proposal to bring Social Security to “close actuarial balance for full seventy-five year valuation period,” without changing the current structure. A summary is available online.

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    • Baker, Dean, and Mark Weisbrot. 1999. Social security: The phony crisis. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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      Strong critique of Social Security’s “phony crisis.”

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      • Herd, Pamela. 2011. Does Betty White have it right? The implications of raising the retirement age for women. Public Policy and Aging Report 21.2: 25–28.

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        Examination of the impact on older women of increasing the retirement age for Social Security. Available online by subscription.

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        • Kingson, Eric, and Nancy Altman. 2011. The social security retirement age(s) debate: Perspectives and consequences. Public Policy and Aging Report 21.2: 1–7.

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          Analysis and discussion of the current debate over increasing the retirement age for Social Security. Available online by subscription.

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          • Marmor, Theodore R., Jerry L. Mashaw, and Philip L. Harvey. 1992. The attack on social security. In America’s misunderstood welfare state. By Theodore R. Marmor, Jerry L. Mashaw, and Philip L. Harvey, 128–174. New York: Basic Books.

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            Somewhat dated but still powerful defense of Social Security against claims often heard today.

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            • Reno, Virginia P. 2011. The case against cutting social security. National Academy of Social Insurance.

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              Succinct argument against cutting Social Security benefits.

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              • Reno, Virginia P., and Joni Lavery. 2006. Can we afford social security when baby boomers retire? Washington, DC: National Academy of Social Insurance.

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                Strong case for the argument that the nation will be able to afford Social Security for future generations.

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