15 Years With OASI

August 14th has become an impressive milestone in this country's history--both foreign and domestic. Five years ago, this date marked the end of hostilities with Japan, and fifteen years ago President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act. In the light of current events the former may seem the more significant landmark in our national development, but this, quite possibly, is only a sign that the passage of time dims the luster of events which were of great consequence when they occurred,

It may be well for all of us to recall the excitement and sense of accomplishment which Americans felt during the early days of Social Security. It is somewhat incredible to look back upon the initial impact of the program and remember the debate that raged and the interest that was stirred up.

The Washington Post of that period believed, "that when the full weight of the taxes and contributions fall on the heads of employers and employed alike this subject will eventually replace all others in dinner-table conversation." This contrasts strikingly with the relative calm and quiet atmosphere in which we now work.

It is perhaps a fortunate circumstance that, as we celebrate the fifteenth anniversary, the most drastic legislative changes in the history of our program have been enacted. Once more the bustle and scurry of the pioneering days may be relived. The same controversy no longer rages, and the drama attendant upon a "bold new program" can never be repeated. But the administrative adjustments and the rush to keep step with the latest Congressional developments can help us to re-visualize the hectic days of 1935 and '36.

Why was the Social Security Act such a significant milestone? Mainly because it provided for the first concerted, nation-wide attack by all levels of government---federal, state and local--on the problem of economic insecurity of wage earners and their families. It also enabled the states to extend and strengthen their services in the field of health and welfare. Events of the preceding depression years had underscored the fact that the problem of economic insecurity could no longer be met by individuals through their own efforts, or by private relief agencies, or by local community action. The act confirmed public acceptance of the concept of governmental responsibility for assuring a reasonable degree of economic and social security for all people in all parts of the country.

This confirmation was not easily established, however. The charges of "Foreign Importation" and "radicalism" rang loud and clear throughout the land. The debate in Congress far surpassed anything which H.R. 6000 underwent. One vote was all that saved the Act from being declared unconstitutional, when on May 24, 1937 the Supreme Court finally ruled 5-4 in its favor.

In a notable opinion Justice Cardozo spoke for the majority:

"Needs that were narrow or parochial a century ago may be interwoven in our day with the well-being of the nation. What is critical or urgent changes with the times. The problem of preventing want in old age is plainly national in area and dimensions. Moreover, laws of the separate States cannot deal with it effectively. Only a power that is national can serve the interests of all."

This decision finally made it clear that questions of technique in Social Security would be ones of legislative policy rather than constitutional limitation.

The rest, as the saying goes, is history. Let's look at a few of highlights. The first administrative body was an independent Social Security Board made up of three people. The work of this Board was performed by three operating bureaus: Old-Age Insurance, Public Assistance, and Unemployment Compensation. We are mainly interested here in the administrative development of the first of these. The parts of our Bureau as they appear on the first organizational charts have an unfamiliar sound. In the Director's Office there was a Training Section and a Coordinating and Review Division. There were four operating divisions--Records Service (that's DAO), Claims Service, Field Service, and Actuarial Service.

From the very first, we knew that because our program was so large, considerable decentralization would be necessary. The heart of this decentralization was the 12 regional offices of the Social Security Board and the field offices of the Bureau. The field offices were opened quickly--71 by the end of 1936, a total of 100 in February 1937. There are now 478.

Because office space was not to be had in Washington for all of us, space was leased (temporarily, we thought) in the Candler Building for the Records Division. It opened officially in Baltimore on November 9, 1936 with 18 people. Three weeks later, the 18 had increased to 991. DAO now has more than 4,000 employees. Even, bursting at the seams, Candler can't hold them all, and the excess resides in the Paca-Pratt Building.

One of the biggest steps was taken in 1942. The central offices were moved to Baltimore in order to make room for war agencies in Washington. In that year also, area offices were opened, giving effect to the need for further decentralization. The responsibility for the adjudication of claims was transferred from the area to the field offices, and thus the Bureau began to assume the administrative shape that we know today.

On a higher level, administrative changes were also made in 1939. The Federal Security Agency was established, integrating into one unit the Social Security Board, the U. S. Public Health Service, Civilian Conservation Corps, the National Youth Administration and the Office of Education. In 1946, a Commissioner for Social Security was appointed to head the new Social Security Administration which replaced the Board.

Program changes accompanied or preceded administrative modifications. In 1939, dependents and survivors benefits were included in the program, and benefits became payable in 1940 instead of 1942. The present trust fund was established to replace the former old age reserve account. The 1946 amendments included monthly benefits for survivors of certain World War II veterans who died within three years of discharge from military service. The Gearhart resolution, restricting the definition of employee, was passed in 1948.

The scope of our operations expanded too:

  • In 1937, 30 million employee accounts had been established. There are now 62 million active accounts.
  • There were 245,000 OASI beneficiaries in 1940. Today there are 3 million.
  • In 1941 it took 100 people to do the work that 60 will do in 1951.
  • By January 1, 1950 the estimated face value of life insurance protection built up by 45.7 fully or currently insured persons was 80 billion dollars.

And we haven't reached the ultimate. The new amendments will increase our operations immeasurably, and there is no reason to believe that H. R. 6000 represents the final word either. Changing situations will certainly present new challenges to us in the future.

Behind these statistics are facts which convey far more than a growth in Bureau operations. The Social Security program has wrought changes in the whole fabric of this country's domestic scene. The combination of aid to the aged, the young, the sick and the unemployed has granted a large measure of security to millions who formerly had nowhere to turn. When all the Federal Security Agency's efforts are combined, this aid becomes far more than pure financial assistance. Research in new health and educational methods; the whole new science of geriatrics; and a vast effort to prevent, as well as cure, misfortune have relieved pressures and given new hope to a large portion of our population.

Looking back over this record, we can all take pride in having administered and grown up with an Act, which President Roosevelt once called, "the supreme achievement by his administration."