Monday, May 9, 2011

Introduction to the Social Security: Presidential Perspectives Blog

Social Security has been one of the cornerstones of American social policy since its inception in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation of 1935. To date, it has survived thirteen presidencies, several major wars, and a dramatic scale of changes since the 20th century. Indeed, though it has been adapted, amended, and tweaked, the basic tenets of Social Security have endured for one main reason: it works. The program has lifted millions of elderly citizens out of poverty, and in 1985 brought the percentage of old-aged persons under the poverty line below that of the general population.[1]

But administrators of Social Security must now confront its most difficult challenge, one which many presidents have tried unsuccessfully to address: the aging of the population. As of the writing of this blog, a generation of approximately 80 million baby boomers is in the midst of retiring, accruing benefits a rate significantly higher than the contributions being made by the workforce.
[2] Whereas in Social Security’s early days, there were about 16 workers paying into the system for every retiree receiving benefits, now there are less than three.[3] Altogether, this trend suggests that without significant changes in current policy, the Social Security system will be bankrupt by as early as 2037, and will be able to pay substantially reduced benefits in the following years.[4]

As we consider options for preventing this looming crisis, it is important to reflect on the history of Social Security to understand how we got to this point and to illustrate how we can learn from the past to shape the debate for the future. In our experience, too often do these reflections stop with the former goal without considering the latter. To avoid this pitfall, we have created an interactive blog to spur meaningful debate about the history of Social Security, and how we can use it to provide recommendations for the future.

In the twelve entries that follow, we present reconstructions of each president’s experience with, and stance on Social Security from FDR to Obama, relying heavily on primary sources. The experiences of President Gerald Ford are excluded due to a lack of primary sources available, as well as because of his comparative lack of influence on the broader contours of the Social Security debate. Each entry begins with pertinent historical questions, followed by a response from the president. After each entry, we provide a brief analysis of the interaction between that president’s experience and several main themes that can be traced throughout the history of Social Security and contribute significantly to its current direction. These key themes include:

1. Expanding Coverage vs. Controlling Costs

Over the past 80 years, presidents have faced conflicting pressures both to control the costs of Social Security and to expand it's coverage and benefits. These influences come from within the political system and from without in varying degrees as Social Security evolves; they often play an essential role in framing the debate over Social Security for each president. As Social Security becomes increasingly sacred to the American public and political elite, reducing benefits becomes ever less feasible. At the same time, as costs skyrocket with the aging of the baby boomer generation, costs become more important to address. The result is the seemingly insurmountable problem of Social Security.

2. Ideological Polarization

As Social Security grows, it is subject to intensifying partisan pressures that shape discussions over what reforms should look like. For example, from its inception, Social Security was viewed by many as a cornerstone of the Democratic party. Since then, it has played a key role in the larger debate between conservatives and liberals over the American welfare state in general. As polarization increases, party lines became even more divided on the issue of Social Security. Democratic and Republican presidents alike must take into account the realities of their party's agenda. Furthermore, it becomes increasingly difficult to establish a bipartisan compromise, which appears to be the method of choice of recent presidents for crafting Social Security reforms.

3. Short-Term vs. Long-Term Solutions

Social Security reform has consistently been a battle between short-term and long-term solutions. Short-term solutions push the issue off the agenda, are extremely popular in election years, and are more politically feasible when the perception is that the problem is here and now. However, they often result in the need for administrations to revisit underlying problems every few years. On the other hand, long-term solutions are extremely hard to sell in the political climate, unless crisis is imminent. When the fiscal situation is relatively stable, it is very difficult to convince Congress and the American public that the need to address the long-term Social Security problem warrants attention. This tension is a major obstacle to meaningful reform.

Understanding how these themes interact with the characteristics of the presidents that have presided over the Social Security system and the constraints they faced will allow us to study the nuances of its political and economic history, and thus its place in the larger debate on the American welfare state. Our analysis sections will also serve as a springboard for discussion, whereby we can, in proper bipartisan fashion, debate the key issues addressed by particular presidents as well as their place in the context of Social Security.

We conclude with a final entry that summarizes our analyses and provides tentative recommendations, based on historical precedence, for the future direction of Social Security. We invite our professors and classmates to comment on these final thoughts as we join a century-long debate over the future of one of the most successful, sacred, and salient social policies in American history. Perhaps through understanding the changing context of public policy, we can together engender the kind of sustained and meaningful non-partisan debate that is so elusive in public policy today.

[1] Remarks by the President in Addressing the Future of Entitlements Conference, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, December 13, 1993. Retrieved from
[2] O’Brien, Sharon. Obama’s views on the Social Security payroll tax. Retrieved from
[3] George Bush, State of the Union Speech, February 2, 2005. Retrieved from
[4] Is Social Security on the table as Obama, Congress tackle the deficit? (2011). CBS News. Retrieved from

1 comment:

  1. An effective introduction - captures some of the key components of the issue, and I like the way it sets up the assessment of the presidents. One technical point - the second paragraph mentions the threat of Social Security "bankruptcy," which is of course a commonly used term. The second clause of that sentence, however, points out what that really means: that not all of the promised benefits will be paid. Few people grasp this distinction, as most assume that bankruptcy means no benefits will be paid. Also, the long-term vs. short-term solution issue is important: how do we define these terms?GM