Sunday, May 8, 2011

President #4: John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)

What measures did you take to strengthen the Social Security Act? To what extent were your decisions motivated by a desire to expand coverage? By a desire to increase efficiency?

In 1961, I signed into law a series of Social Security Amendments that represented a step towards eliminating many of the hardships of old age, disability, or untimely death of a family’s wage-earner. I have always believed that the nation’s strength lies in the continued well-being of its people, and changes in our population, working habits, and in our standards of living required further revision of Social Security to maintain that well-being. The 1961 Amendments made Social Security more effective and more beneficial for recipients.[1]

Specifically, the 1961 reforms lowered the eligibility age for old-age and survivors insurance benefits from 65 to 62 with an accompanying actuarial reduction, and increased the minimum monthly benefit payable to all retirees. Benefit payment levels were also increased to widows, orphans, and need children, while the retirement test was made more generous. Finally, a tax increase scheduled for 1969 was moved forward one year to 1968, while employers were required to pay a slightly higher Social Security contribution rate.[2]

These changes reflected my continued belief that public welfare must be more than a salvage operation, picking up the debris from the wreckage of human lives. The emphasis must be not only on the long-range costs in terms of the budget, but the long-range costs in human terms as well.[3] I urged Congress to further amend the Social Security Act to ensure that States receiving Federal funds not exclude otherwise eligible persons on the basis of harsh residence requirements for the aged, blind, and disabled. Increased mobility is a hallmark of our economic times and should not be unfairly punitive on individual families.[4]

But to encourage flexibility and efficiency in welfare programs, I recommended that my Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare identify mechanisms to simplify the coordination, administration, and operation of programs, to increase experimental and pilot projects and local levels. The steps I recommended to Congress were not cheap, but restored human dignity and, by increasing the well-being of citizens, would save money in the long run.[5]

Editor’s Note

President John F. Kennedy’s domestic policy agenda primarily concerned areas outside of Social Security. Thus during his short-lived presidency, Kennedy was responsible only for minor changes to the Social Security Act. However, it was clear from his speeches and proposals that though important, President Kennedy viewed budgetary cost cutting as a distinctly secondary goal in comparison to improving the plight of the old-aged and disabled. Kennedy still acknowledged the importance of improving efficiency in program administration, notably calling for state and local-level policy experimentation while supporting more flexible state approaches to funding challenges. A final noteworthy point is that Kennedy, like many of his predecessors, was comparatively unafraid to include conversations about tax increases, providing these were framed in the correct way and phased in with a substantial time delay.   

[1] Statement by the President Upon Signing the Social Security Amendments of 1961, June 30, 1961.
[2] Social Security Amendments of 1961: Summary and Legislative History. Social Security Administration, U.S. Government, 2011.
[3] Special Message to the Congress on Public Welfare Programs, February 1, 1962.
[4] Ibid. pg. 4.
[5] Ibid. pgs. 4, 5.


  1. Questions for Readers:

    1) What will JFK's legacy on Social Security be? Were his efforts to promote health insurance definitive in later successes?

    2) Had progressive increases in benefits become an essentially mandatory exercise for presidents at this point? Was there any scope for adjusting the rate of increase?

  2. I might mention Kennedy's Medicare proposals in the text, either in his remarks or in the editor's note. Yes, I think they were important. One other thing to note here is the importance of Congress, and particularly key committee chairman like Wilbur Mills of Ways & Means. The media and the public tend to focus too intensively on presidents, who are important but often not the key actors. Mills is crucial during the period on things like the change in the start date of the new tax - very focused on actuarial soundness of the program.

  3. On the question about benefit increases: I'm not sure that they were mandatory, but there was certainly a strong, at times even bipartisan consensus that they were needed. The other point to remember is the one I made above regarding Wilbur Mills - they actually were concerned to some degree about balancing the increases with adequate financing.