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Grade 9-12

The History of Social Security

Updated: April 25 2016,


Social Security Act of 1935: Did the creation of a federally administered old-age pension program support or threaten American values and traditions?


…security was attained in the earlier days through the interdependence of members of families upon each other and of the families within a small community upon each other. The complexities of great communities and of organized industry make less real these simple means of security. Therefore, we are compelled to employ the active interest of the Nation as a whole through government in order to encourage a greater security for each individual who composes it.
—President Franklin Roosevelt, Message to Congress,
June 8, 1934 (Social Security Administration, n.d.e.)

I fear [Roosevelt’s Social Security policies] may end the progress of a great country and bring its people to the level of the average European. . . . It will discourage and defeat the American trait of thrift. It will go a long way toward destroying American initiative and courage.
—Senator Daniel O. Hastings (R-DE), 1935 (Williams, 2011)

As of November 2015, over 65 million people, or about one in every five U.S. residents, collected Social Security or Supplemental Security Income (SSI). Sixty-eight percent of beneficiaries were over the age of 65, primarily comprising retirees and surviving widows/widowers, whereas 22 percent were disabled workers under the age of 65 (Social Security Administration, 2015).1 Social Security is underwritten by money that retirees and their employers contribute through their payroll taxes. Money paid into the Social Security trust fund by current workers maintains the fund balance from which retirees collect their benefits. With some adjustments, this system has been in place since President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935. The fund has usually run a surplus. Now, because of the large number of retirees in the baby boom (the increase in the number of babies born in the approximately 20 years following World War II), the number of workers in the labor force relative to the number of retirees is changing (from 5:1 in 1960 to 3:1 in 2009 to a predicted 2.2:1 in 2030). It is projected that, without increased revenue or other changes in the program, by approximately 2036, Social Security will be able to cover only 75% of the monthly benefit retirees have been promised. (See the “Overview of Social Security” included with this packet and available online.)

Is 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? 

Today, as in 1935, there is a range of opinion about whether the federal government should be involved in administering a retirement fund. 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. Others 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.

This lesson examines the origins of Social Security and asks students to address its essential dilemma by analyzing documents associated with the creation of the program and statements both for and against it.

Learning Objectives


  • Social Security began during the Depression, a time when one in four Americans were out of work and over half of the elderly lacked sufficient income to be self-supporting.
  • Then, as now, views differed on whether the welfare of the elderly should be the responsibility of the federal government.


  • Examine sources for information and interpretations, and for cases where they corroborate, complement, or contradict each other.
  • Support positions with evidence.


Day 1 of 2


Project or distribute M.A. Zoller’s letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Resource 1) and ask students how much historical information they can get from this letter and what relationship Mrs. Zoller believes she has or should have with the government. After students have gone as far as they can, supplement the discussion with any of the following questions that have not yet been discussed.

  • What circumstances make Mrs. Zoller and her mother’s situation so dire?
    [Student answers might include: Mrs. Zoller’s mother’s age, her widowhood, her inability to take care of herself, the inability of anyone in the family to take care of Mrs. Zoller’s mother, and the fact that she has no apparent hope of finding help.]
  • What is the writer’s specific request?
    [Students should understand that she specifically asks for the President’s assistance in securing her mother’s “old age pension” rather than more general support.]
  • How does the writer make her case to the president?
    [Student answers might include that she personalizes her appeal by relating her mother’s situation to that of the president’s mother and that she emphasizes how much she and her family have already done on their own.]
  • Given the mother’s circumstances, what other options might have been available to her? Is her situation a result of poor planning?
    [Student answers will vary.]
  • What role does Mrs. Zoller believe the federal government (or President Roosevelt) should play in her or her mother’s life? What basis might she have for expecting this sort of help from the government? Does she write as if she is expecting something radically new in the way the government takes care of Americans?
    [Student answers will vary, but they might note that her appeal—as personal as it is—seems based on a wish that the government would take care of deserving people in need. On the other hand, she is not asking for a change in program or policy, just help from President Roosevelt. Students might speculate about the significance of this. Ask them what else they would need to know in order to understand the basis of Mrs. Zoller’s appeal and the extent to which her views are representative of the needs, hopes, and expectations others had at that time.]

Tell students that Mrs. Zoller included a flyer from the election of 1932 implying that, if elected president, Mr. Roosevelt would support plans for a government-sponsored old-age pension. Ask how this new information affects their ideas.

[Students will probably see this as evidence that Mrs. Zoller is holding the president to account and expects him to fulfill his campaign promise of government relief.]

If time permits, ask students to put themselves into the role of the president and write a letter back to Mrs. Zoller. Ask students to share what they have written.


If students are familiar with the Depression and the Social Security Act of 1935, the “Social Security and Medicare Timeline” and “Overview of Social Security” included in this packet (and available online) may be unnecessary. If they are less familiar with this time period, both documents can be provided as handouts and reviewed before continuing the lesson.

1936 Government Pamphlet on Social Security

Distribute the excerpt from “The 1936 Government Pamphlet on Social Security” (Resource 2). Ask students to read the excerpt so carefully that, were the year 1936, they would be able to explain the Social Security program to a somewhat confused aunt or uncle. Play that confused aunt or uncle and ask students to explain the program.

When there is agreement on how the plan works, have students describe what they notice about the program—both in the way it is set up and in the way it is explained. Have them use the description of the program to infer what problem it is trying to solve.

If students have studied the Depression recently, they can call upon that knowledge. If not, or if they struggle and have not yet been given the “Overview of Social Security” included with this packet, distribute it now.

Ask students the following questions:

  • Why might some people call Social Security radically new? What role is the government playing in the Social Security program?
    [Students might say that 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. They might say that it is radical for the government to require individuals to participate in the program. Other students might say that 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.]
  • Would a program like this have met the needs of Mrs. Zoller?
    [Students who read closely will note that 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.]
  • Does this program represent a change in governance that threatens American values and traditions?
    [Student answers will vary, but may 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.]

Distribute “Excerpts from ‘Why Social Security?’” (Resource 3). Ask students to review the excerpts and look again at their answer to the question of values and traditions. (Students might also view Your Social Security, a 1940s film explaining the new program. It is available at .) Ask students again:

  • Does this program represent a change in governance that threatens American values and traditions?
    [Answers will vary as above, but expect that this time students will take account of the rationale offered in the booklet.]

If students need more guidance, ask them the following questions:

  • How does the booklet use the contrast between the past and the present to introduce the new program?
    [Student answers will vary, but may include observations about how the booklet links the new program to ways in which Americans have always taken care of one another and changes in the modern economy. They might discuss ways in which the illustrations are part of this message.]
  • Would the booklet make the program more acceptable to Americans? Did the booklet affect the students’ own ideas about whether the program is consistent with American values and traditions?
    [Student answers will vary.]

Day 2 of 2

Opponents of the Social Security Act

Distribute “Opponents of Social Security” (Resource 4). If time permits, organize this segment so that each student reads all four pieces in Resource 4. If time is tight, divide the class into four groups, with each group being responsible for reading and reporting on one excerpt. The directions that follow assume you are using the first model, but can be adapted.

Ideally, students should read each excerpt with very little introduction. Tell them they are to imagine they found their excerpts in the course of their study on Social Security and its significance for the country. Their job is to get as much history as they can from these “found pieces” and then to ask questions that will help them understand them better. Use the following guides to build the discussion.

Excerpt 1: “One Look Back—But Two Ahead” (Silas H. Strawn)

Silas Strawn was president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce during the early years of the Depression. He supported Herbert Hoover and was opposed to the New Deal. “One Look Back—But Two Ahead” was adapted from a radio broadcast and published in the October 1931 Rotarian.

[Student questions will vary. Students might ask what Rotarians are, or what the Rotary or Chamber of Commerce is. Explain that Rotary is a service organization made up of business or professional leaders in a community. Membership is by invitation. The role of the Chamber of Commerce is, according to its mission statement, “To advance progress through an economic, political and social system based on individual freedom, incentive, initiative, opportunity, and responsibility.”]

If these points do not emerge from reading Strawn’s article, direct student attention to the following:

  • 1931: The date of the article. The Great Depression had begun in 1929. Herbert Hoover was president. Franklin Roosevelt would soon be competing for election as president in 1932.
  • Strawn’s cure for the Depression: Frugality, consumer spending (to maintain standard of living), voluntary efforts to take care of the unemployed (and insure against radicalism), courage, and enterprise. “It will be brought about by cooperating individual effort and not by governmental action.”

Ask students how Strawn is likely to feel about the New Deal and Social Security, and to be specific about why.

[Students should predict that Strawn will be opposed to the New Deal. Students should have no trouble locating examples of his belief in self-reliance. They might speculate that as a representative of small businesses he would not favor the payroll tax employers were required to pay for their employees’ Social Security.]

Excerpt 2: “Stealing”

This letter was written by an anonymous woman to Eleanor Roosevelt in the winter following President Roosevelt’s election to a second term in November 1936. It was published in a 1982 book by Robert McElvaine. The book collected letters sent to the President’s wife and was entitled Down and Out in the Great Depression.

Ask them what they can tell about the writer (“anonymous”) based on the letter. Students should report on the following:

  • The writer’s preferred role for the government: A very limited one. “Balance the budget and reduce taxes.” 
  • The writer’s view of Social Security and efforts to stimulate the economy: The taxes are stealing from her because she has provided for herself and her old age.
  • The writer’s anonymity: She is asking Mrs. Roosevelt to show the president the letter, which not only is critical of his programs, but also mentions she is one of the “forgotten few,” one of those who didn’t vote for President Roosevelt. She appears not to trust the president.
  • The extent to which the 1936 views of “anonymous” express Strawn’s 1931 point of view.

Excerpt 3: 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.

Ask students to compare the Townsend Plan with the Social Security program. If students do not mention the significant differences between the two, ask them to go back to the text of the pamphlet and look for them.

[Students should notice that the Townsend Plan promised immediate payments in 1935, and those payments did not require that people work and make contributions. The plan was to be funded by a 2% national sales tax.]

Point out that there was no means test for receiving $200 a month. Everyone was eligible.

Ask students why this plan might have been as popular as it was (some historians believe it pressured Roosevelt to put Social Security in place) and what more they would need to know to judge its merits.

[Students might note that the plan was popular because it promised generous economic relief quickly. They might also see the sales tax formula for raising the money as simple and “painless.”]

FYI: In Congressional hearings, it emerged that this plan would cost $2.4 billion a month—$29 billion annually—and the proposed tax would only raise, at most, $9 billion annually.

Excerpt 4: Huey P. Long

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. Excerpt 4 includes readings from his autobiography, written in 1933, and from a speech to the Senate he made on February 5, 1934. 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. The selection includes the part of the speech that gave an overview of his program, and the detail on his old-age pension plan.

If they don’t initiate the topic, ask students the following:

  • Compare Share Our Wealth with the Townsend Plan. Are there any similarities in their view of the role of government?

    [Students will see that both plans assume that the government has a role to play in managing the wealth of individual citizens, and both provide for the elderly. Students will also see that they have very different goals. Townsend’s plan was not designed to change the distribution of wealth in the United States, and that is the core purpose of Share Our Wealth.]

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.


Distribute the excerpt of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech made upon passage of the Social Security bill (Resource  5). 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 also reference the speech excerpt, the Social Security booklet in Resource 3, and at least one of the excerpts from Resource 4.


Common Core State Standards (CCSS) Initiative
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.CCRA.R.6. Assess how point of view or purpose shapes the content and style of a text.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.6. Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7. Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

The College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards
D2.His.12.9-12. Use questions generated about multiple historical sources to pursue further inquiry and investigate additional sources.
D2.His.16.9-12. Integrate evidence from multiple relevant historical sources and interpretations into a reasoned argument about the past.

National Center for History in the Schools’ Historical Thinking Standards
1.F. Chronological Thinking. Reconstruct patterns of historical succession and duration in which historical developments have unfolded, and apply them to explain historical continuity and change.
2.F. Historical Comprehension. Appreciate historical perspectives . . . (a) describing the past on its own terms, through the eyes and experiences of those who were there, as revealed through their literature, diaries, letters, debates, arts, artifacts, and the like; (b) considering the historical context in which the event unfolded—the values, outlook, options, and contingencies of that time and place; and (c) avoiding “present-mindedness,” judging the past solely in terms of present-day norms and values.
3.C. Historical Analysis and Interpretation. Analyze cause-and-effect relationships bearing in mind multiple causation including (a) the importance of the individual in history; (b) the influence of ideas, human interests, and beliefs; and (c) the role of chance, the accidental, and the irrational.
5.B. Historical Issues. Marshal evidence of antecedent circumstances and current factors contributing to contemporary problems and alternative courses of action.

NCSS’s National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
2. Time, Continuity, and Change. Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the past and its legacy.
5. Individuals, Groups, and Institutions. Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of interactions among individuals, groups, and institutions.
6. Power, Authority, and Governance. Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create, interact with, and change structures of power, authority, and governance.


Cardow, C. (2011, August 3). Threats. Cagle Cartoons. Retrieved from

Heller, J. (2011, August 11). Lost found. Cagle Cartoons. Retrieved from

Jones, T. (2008, March 3). Humpty Dumpty. Cagle Cartoons. Retrieved from

Keefe, M. (2011, August 15). Planet of the AARPs. Cagle Cartoons. Retrieved from

Long, H. P. (1933). Every man a king: The autobiography of Huey P. Long. New Orleans: National Book. Retrieved from

McElvaine, R. S. (1983). Down & out in the Great Depression: Letters from the “forgotten man.” Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. Retrieved from inquiry/main/resources/37/

Roosevelt, F. D. (1935). August 14, 1935, excerpt from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speech, Washington, D.C. Retrieved from

Social Security Administration. (2015) Statistical snapshot. Retrieved from

Social Security Administration. (n.d.a). Analysis of plan. Retrieved from

Social Security Administration. (n.d.b). Huey Long’s Senate speeches. Retrieved from

Social Security Administration. (n.d.c). Letter to President Roosevelt regarding old-age pensions. Retrieved from

Social Security Administration. (n.d.d). Social Security numbers: The 1936 government pamphlet on Social Security. Retrieved from

Social Security Administration. (n.d.e). Why Social Security? Retrieved from

Strawn, S. H. (1931, October). One look back—but two ahead! Rotarian, 39(4), 5.

Williams, J. (2011). Muzzled: The assault on honest debate. New York: Random House.

Extension Activity

Use any of the four cartoons in Resource 6 to identify how the current debate about Social Security is framed. A Teacher’s Guide is included in the resource.