Grade 9-12

The History of Social Security

Time: 90 mins,
Updated: April 28 2020,


Students will be able to:

  • Examine primary and secondary sources for information and interpretations.
  • Support positions with evidence.

In this economics lesson, students will examine the creation of Social Security.



Write the following question on the board. Read this question to students and relay that this is the essential dilemma of the day:

Did the creation of a federally administered old-age pension program support or threaten American values and traditions?

Explain to students that the debate about Social Security, its value, and its affordability is frequently in the news, discussed by the Congress and the President, and around the dinner table. Created in 1935 at the height of the Great Depression, funding the Social Security program today consumes about 25% of the annual budget of the United States.

Introduce students to the Social Security program by projecting the political cartoons on slides 2-5 of the History of Social Security PowerPoint. Also distribute one copy of Social Security: Visualizing the Debate to each student so they can see all four cartoons simultaneously. Without any introduction, ask students to identify the common thread that runs through the cartoons. Use the cartoons to identify how the current debate about ongoing funding of Social Security is framed in the budget process and its impact on the national debt.


Once students complete their analysis, ask them what they noticed about each cartoon, focusing on the detail of what they see. If students jump to an errant interpretation of the cartoon, ask them to explain the rationale for the interpretation and ask other students if they agree or disagree. Additionally, ask students the following questions, one question for each of the cartoons.

1. Why did the artist choose the metaphor of Humpty Dumpty to depict the modern Social Security system. What view do you think the cartoonist holds about the program?

Answer: The problems facing Social Security are so severe they threaten to topple Uncle Sam. Students could argue that the artist believes the program is dangerous to the country or that the artist believes it is essential to the country.

2. Who are the people in the Tea Party cartoon, and what position does the Tea Party appear to take on the role of government in solving the economic problems of individual people? What view does this cartoonist seem to have?

Answer: The people in the cartoon are middle class people who have suffered significant losses following the 2008 economic downturn. The man behind the desk is a member of the Tea Party, a group that has opposed raising taxes in any way and under any conditions. The cartoonist seems to think that the position of the Tea Party is not going to help people from the middle class.

3. Who are the people in this cartoon and what point is the cartoonist is making? Why are the younger people running from the older people? What does the Planet of the Apes reference suggest?

Answer: The suggestion seems to be that the number of elderly are increasing at such a rate that they will “take over” and pose a threat to the future of the younger people because the cost of mandated retirement programs, like Social Security and Medicare, will sap their resources.

4. Who are the people in the cartoon entitled “Greatest Threats” and what point is the cartoonist is making? Why does the lady seem so harmless compared to the other people? Is that a clue about the cartoonist’s point of view? How does this cartoon compare to Humpty Dumpty?

Answer: The cartoonist is suggesting that entitlement programs are now perceived as being as much a threat to national security as Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were—or that they are being presented that way, presumably in the media. Student answers may vary on why the lady looks so harmless. It is open to interpretation. Students will probably find this cartoon to be more of a commentary on how we define threats to national security than a commentary on the programs themselves.

Conclude this activity by asking students why a government program created in 1935 continues to be so controversial today. By going back in time to the era of the Great Depression and examining the decision making process using primary source documents, we may be able to determine why the President and the majority of the members of Congress voted to create the Social Security Program, how it has expanded, and why it is in financial trouble today.

Group Activity

Place students in groups of three and distribute one copy of the How Social Security was Born to each student. Use the Social Security was Born – Answer Key as a reference for possible answers. Ask students to read the primary source documents in section 1, Letters to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and answer the questions that follow. Discuss responses as a class.

Once you have completed the discussion on section 1, proceed to section 2, The 1936 Government Pamphlet on Social Security. Ask students to read the excerpt so carefully that, were it the year 1936, they would be able to explain the Social Security program to a somewhat confused grandparent. Place students in groups of 2-3 and have them present their explanation to a different group, and have that second group prepared to ask “a lot of questions” as if they were the grandparents who want to know about Social Security. Conclude this section by leading a class discussion around the following questions:

1. Why might some people call Social Security radically new? What role is the government playing in the Social Security program?

Answers may include: It is radically new because it is the first time the federal government has used a mandated program to protect the elderly from poverty. Students might say that it is radical for the government to play this role when saving for retirement is usually thought of as an individual responsibility or what a private company does in setting up a pension plan. It is radical for the government to require individuals to participate in the program. It is not radical because the government is us and, by looking out for the elderly, it is doing in a more systematic way what we have always done for each other.

2. Would a program like this have met the needs of Mrs. Zoller?

Answers may include: This will only help workers who pay into the system beginning in 1937. It is too late for Mrs. Zoller. Had the timing been different, her husband or her brother might well have paid into Social Security and been eligible for benefits. Though it is not described in this excerpt, after 1939, Mrs. Zoller would have received a benefit as her husband’s survivor.]

3. Does this program represent a change in governance that threatens American values and traditions?

Answers may include: Be consistent with the way in which they responded to the “radically new” question. Students who felt the government was taking care of the elderly on behalf of us as a people may say that it is protecting American values. Others might feel that, because the federal government is requiring workers to contribute earnings to a government retirement program, instead of choosing for themselves how to fund their retirement, it is taking away an important element of freedom of choice.

Continue on to section 3, Why Social Security? Ask students to read the excerpts. “Why Social Security?” was a 32-page Social Security Board booklet published in 1937 as part of the Board’s efforts to educate the American public about the rationale behind the new Social Security program. If you would like to expand the lesson, you can also view as a class the 17 minute film, Your Social Security, a 1940s film explaining the new program. Give students time to answer the questions that follow as a group and then discuss responses as a class. See the answer key for expected response from students.

Individual Activity

Have students return to the own work stations and distribute one copy of the Alternative Plans to Social Security to each student. Ask students to read the documents and answer the questions that follow. Provide the following background on each document to students:

The Townsend Plan – Dr. Francis Townsend was a 66-year-old dentist who found himself broke and unemployed in 1933. The Townsend Plan began as a very long letter to the editor in Long Beach, California, in early 1933, while Hoover was still president. Roosevelt had just been elected. The letter was well received and an organization was formed. This document is from a pamphlet distributed nationwide in early 1934. Townsend hoped that Roosevelt would adopt his plan.

Share Our Wealth Plan – Huey P. Long was governor of Louisiana from 1928 to 1932 and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930. Long founded the “Share Our Wealth” program, which advocated a redistribution of the nation’s wealth. In his autobiography, Long describes his position on wealth, claiming that 1% of the people own everything in the country. In his Senate speech, made after Roosevelt had become president but before Social Security had been passed, Long outlines his plan.

Students might wonder how seriously Long was regarded and how much support he had—how many people shared his conception that one role of the government was to redistribute wealth. After an early alliance, Roosevelt called Long one of the most dangerous men in America. Long enthusiasts are reported to have created 27,000 Share-Our-Wealth clubs and, according to a poll at the time, he might have gotten 11% of the vote running as a third-party presidential candidate.

Once students have had time to read the two plans and answer the questions that follow, share responses and opinions as a class. Use the Alternative Plans to Social Security – Answer Key as a reference.

Ask students if they believe it important to preserve this program. Does Social Security represent a core American value, a part of our social contract, an agreed-upon commitment to help elderly American workers support themselves in retirement by requiring them to contribute to a government-run pension plan? Or does it over-reach by requiring workers to contribute to a government program to help fund their retirement?


Distribute the document titled Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Speech. Ask students to write a letter to President Roosevelt either supporting or opposing him based on what they argue are American values and traditions. The letter must request that he do something. The letter should reference the FDR speech excerpt and the documents they have read during the course of the lesson. Additionally, have students complete Comparing the Plans as a means of organizing information about all the plans and then creating a meaningful letter of advice for the President. Collect responses to assess comprehension.


Activity 1

Show slide 6 from the PPT presentation. To frame the debate about whether or not to create the Social Security old-age program, share the two statements Conflicting Points of View with the student groups. Ask students to compare and contrast the position of each speaker on the need for a social “safety net” for elderly citizens. Ask students to think about the cost of such a program from the perspective of Mrs. Zoller and her family, and also from the point of view of a more affluent family. Should a government old-age pension program be funded or not?

Explain to students that today, as in 1935, there is a range of opinion about whether the federal government should be involved in administering a retirement fund for citizens. Some people believe this is not the proper role for the federal government and that individuals must arrange for their own retirement, either through a plan administered by their employer or by putting aside money on their own. Some people believe that taking care of elderly family members is the responsibility of other family members. On the other hand, there are people who believe the federal government, representing the American people, has a duty to require individuals and their employers to participate in a program that will assure a minimum level of income to retired people, survivors and dependent children (as of 1939), and the disabled (as of 1956). They believe the program represents a shared responsibility to one another and from one generation to the next.