Our Plain Duty: FDR and America’s Social Security
Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, Hyde Park, N.Y
Social Security recently turned 75, and while doomsayers predict its demise, at the FDR Presidential Library it’s getting a party. A compact yet remarkable exhibit reveals a cornucopia of memorabilia and artifacts, like the original 39-page act creating Social Security and unemployment insurance. The wall of the opening room is lined with 81/2-by-11 photos of faces—young, old, male, female. The adjoining wall sports heartrending letters from desperate Americans—like those in the photos—asking Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt for help. Just one typical example: A daughter who earns $3 a day working in a city far from home begs FDR to please send $50 to save her aging rural parents from homelessness.
Documents, newspapers, video clips and other materials illuminate how and why Social Security and unemployment insurance were conceived and birthed amid the Depression and deficit spending. One clever interactive exhibit demonstrates how and why Social Security’s arithmetic really works—and why it won’t go broke, despite scaremonger scenarios.
Considering 39 pages saved millions from despair, hunger and death, it’s hard not to think ruefully of the recent health care bill’s dumbfounding mass. But the sad contrast cuts in other directions, too. In 1935 debate was intense and lengthy in both houses of Congress, but the results were passed by large bipartisan majorities. That political process of discussion and compromise combined with big-picture thinking seems all too remote today. Worth pondering as we celebrate.
Originally published in the February 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here.