Social Security is a “cruel hoax…unjust, unworkable,…and wastefully financed.” Sound like the words of millionaire presidential contender Steve Forbes? Or maverick billionaire Ross Perot? Or maybe Robert Shapiro, of the business-oriented Democratic Leadership Council? Actually, the sentiments come from 1936 Republican presidential candidate Alf Landon.
Business groups from that era also took swipes at the program. “Self-reliance has been the key to American success…the initiative, thrift, and self-sacrificing foresight of the individual,” explained one group.
Social Security has been a fixture for so long — since 1935 — that we take it for granted. But until the 1950s, it was hotly contested. In its early years, conservatives pursued two strategies to undermine it: They tried to limit who could benefit from it, and they opposed the accumulation of a vast government-managed pool of investment funds for Social Security.
These early critics of Social Security claimed that aiding the least privileged of society was their top priority. They advocated minimal “flat-rate” pensions for anyone in extreme need, while arguing that the nation could not “afford” to pay for pensions calibrated to middle-class incomes. Why would conservatives want to help the poor first? Because it made political sense. The last thing Republicans and business leaders wanted was for middle-income Americans to gain a stake in a large, popular federal government program. Conservatives, then and now, know it’s far easier to minimize — or eliminate — programs that benefit only the poor.
Critics also campaigned hard against the government investing accumulated payroll taxes in interest-generating securities — even though that would have been the most fiscally sound plan for the long run. Again, their political logic was paramount: They wanted to minimize government’s role as much as possible.
Conservatives largely prevailed on the matter of investments, but over the decades they lost the struggle to keep the middle class out of Social Security. By the late 1970s, most American families had a big stake in Social Security.
After 1980, conservatives realized the program was too popular to attack head-on. Today, their tactic is to convince younger, middle-income Americans that Social Security is on the brink of bankruptcy. They denounce proposals for publicly managed investments and maintain that the only way to prepare for the retirement of the baby boom generation is to break Social Security into individual accounts and let Wall Street take over. To realize this right-wing dream, conservatives — Republicans and Democrats alike — are exhorting Americans to turn away from government and rely on free enterprise and individual initiative. Where have we heard this before?
Skocpol is the author of Boomerang: Clinton’s Health Security Effort and the Turn Against Government in U.S. Politics (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996).