Sunday, May 8, 2011

President #2: Harry S. Truman (1945-1953)

What improvements did you seek to make on Social Security? Where was the law inadequate? What were the major constraints to reform?

Social Security quickly became an essential part of the American way of life. We successfully created a national system of old-age and survivors insurance under which forty million workers were insured.[1] Social Security provided assistance payments to the needy aged and blind, and to dependent children. And, importantly, Social Security was not a dole or a device that gave everybody something for nothing. We created security worthy of the men and women who fought to preserve the heritage and the future of America.[2]

But the program of Social Security was not complete, and was subject to piecemeal attack and to slow undermining by Republicans in the House of Representatives. In 1948, I vetoed proposals to remove the protection of the Social Security law from persons who were already entitled to its benefits, such as news vendors, commission salesmen, life insurance salesmen, truck and taxicab drivers, and miners. I believe now as I did then that the security and welfare of our nation demand efforts to cover all excluded groups. Any step in the opposite direction would have undermined the entire program, and would have caused a loss in confidence in the permanence of Social Security’s protection against the hazards of old age, unemployment, and premature death.[3] I fought to oppose such attacks.

The public assistance provided under the Social Security Act was designed as a backstop or second line of defense to be replaced in large measure by social insurance benefits. But in my first term, we had not made much progress toward this objective. Indeed, prior to 1950, individual public assistance payments were substantially higher than those under old-age insurance. I therefore proposed that old-age insurance be extended to the over 20 million employed persons that were not covered at the time, and that the scale of benefits be sharply raised. [4] As we produced more, we had a responsibility to make more adequate provisions for the aged, for those who could not find work, and for the others in our society who were in need. When I took office, only 30% of the aged population was eligible for social insurance benefits.[5]

In 1950, I approved amendments to the Social Security Act that brought 10 million more persons under old-age and survivors insurance, demonstrating our commitment to achieving real economic security for the American family.[6] But as I wrote in a letter to an elderly woman struggling to make ends meet, the old-age insurance payments of Social Security were just plain  inadequate. Rising wage levels and a large amount of available revenues meant that we could increase the primary benefit rates by as much as five dollars a month without any added cost to anyone.[7] Reflecting this possibility, I signed into law the Social Security Act Amendments of 1952, that increased old-age and survivors insurance benefits by an average of six dollars a month, while also increasing the Federal contribution to the States for public assistance by $250 million annually.

Throughout my presidency, I fought off attacks on Social Security from Republicans in the House who were perfectly willing to deny millions of Americans the benefits provided by this legislation in order to satisfy the whim of special interest lobbies.[8] Despite this opposition, I preserved the core principles of Social Security, expanded its coverage, and increased annual benefit payments. Because of our efforts, Social Security was better able to provide some protection for the people of this country.

Editor’s Note

During the 1940s, no substantive changes were made to the Social Security program. Benefit payments to enrollees remained fixed during this period. However, in 1946, the Social Security Board was abolished and replaced with the Social Security Administration, headed by a single commissioner.[9]

The subsequent 1950 Amendments passed by Truman dramatically increased benefits, both for existing beneficiaries and for future program members. Along with the 1952 Amendments, this legislation nearly doubled the value of total payments for existing beneficiaries, but did not include a mechanism for automatically adjusting benefits to account for increases in consumer prices.[10] Though President Truman was correct in his assertion that such an increase in benefits was affordable given the surplus of Social Security reserves, a move to raise payment values so rapidly may have been short-sighted given the program’s present struggles. But for President Truman, who like President Roosevelt was concerned primarily with expanding coverage, this expansion was a substantial victory.

Indeed, in the context of his broader domestic agenda, Truman’s progress on Social Security reform was remarkable. Most of his Fair Deal initiatives faced staunch opposition from Republicans whose political clout was increasing, and many of his legislative endeavors, including universal healthcare, were defeated.[11] So while the raising benefits and the number of beneficiaries would prove to have unintended consequences for future leaders, Social Security was very much a legislative success for President Truman given his domestic priorities.

[1] Statement by the President on the 10th Anniversary of the Social Security Act, August 13, 1945.
[2] Ibid. pg 2.
[3] Veto of Bill to Exclude Vendors of Newspapers and Magazines from Social Security Coverage, April 5, 1948.
[4] Annual Budget Message to Congress: Fiscal Year 1950, January 10, 1949.
[5] Annual Message to the Congress: The President’s Economic Report, January 6, 1950.
[6] Statement by the President Upon Signing the Social Security Act Amendments, August 28, 1950.
[7] Letter to Mrs. Elizabeth Cochrane on the Need For Increasing Social Security Benefits, June 13, 1952.
[8] Statement by the President Upon Signing the Social Security Act Amendments, July 18, 1952.
[9] Historical Background and Development of Social Security. Social Security Online, U.S. Government Social Security Administration, 2011.
[10] Achenbaum, Andrew. Social Security: Visions and Revisions. Cambridge University Press, 1986.
[11] Bernstein, B.J. Politics and policies of the Truman Administration. Quadrangle Books, 1970.


  1. Questions for Readers:

    1) Should President Truman have used the early revenue surplus more conservatively? Was benefits coverage expanded too rapidly, or did it represent a much needed increase in social equity?

    2) President Truman interestingly uses the word "permanence" in his discussions of the scope of Social Security protection. How soon after the creation of a social welfare program does it become intractable and enshrined in American politics? Is this a good thing?

    3) Were there any other Fair Deal programs that, if passed, would have benefited efforts to improve Social Security further? How much of the successful establishment of future welfare programs should be attributed to Truman's Fair Deal?

  2. This is an excellent entry, as it captures many of the key issues and political dynamics of the period. I might place even more emphasis on the initially limited nature of Social Security, and the fact that during the 1940s it had not yet become entrenched as the cornerstone of social policy in the U.S. This brings us to the benefits increase issue - my view was that the increases were integral to achieving this level of permanence and support, and that the program could well have withered into insignificance without them. So I would argue that they were necessary, that they without the link to the CPI they were not particularly inflationary or at the root of the current financing problems (which, as I've argued in class) are likely manageable anyway. One other point: excellent detail in the point about Truman vetoing further exclusions of job categories from coverage. That is hardly ever mentioned, and perfectly captures Social Security's uncertain future in the Truman period.