Grade 9-12

The History of Social Security

Time: 120 mins,
Updated: April 28 2020,
Author: C3 Teachers


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.


Was Social Security Successful? 

Supporting Questions  

What is the purpose of Social Security?  

What are the effects of Social Security? 


Prior Knowledge

It is important to note that this inquiry requires prerequisite knowledge of the role of Congress in the lawmaking process, the Federal budget, President Franklin Roosevelt, the Great Depression, the New Deal, and a basic understanding of economic policy. 

Staging the Compelling Question

Students will read the Preamble of the United States Constitution in U.S. National Archives & Records Administration. Students will specifically pay attention to the phrase “promote the general welfare.” 

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” 

Students will (as a class or in small groups) define the term “welfare” as they believed the writers of the Constitution meant that term. Subsequently, they will create a list of ways that the government does or should provide for the general welfare. This short thought experiment will help students better understand the reasons for the Social Security program, i.e. that it was created by the Federal government in order to provide for the common benefit of most Americans in times of economic depression. This list will also allow students to later compare the effects of Social Security on America’s current society and economy, thus providing students with a framework for thinking about the economic success and government provided social programs.   

Supporting Question 1What was the purpose of Social Security?

This question is designed to lead students through the basic reasons behind the need and creation of the Social Security program through the Social Security Act of 1933. The formative task asks students to fill out the first part of a graphic organizer “T-Chart” in which they create a detailed reason for the creation of Social Security (see below).   

  1. Have students work individually to read/analyze each source and then compare lists in order to check learning. 
  2. Students could first analyze the Social Security Act of 1935 with a series of short comprehension question (e.g. when was the Social Security created? What larger program was Social Security part of? etc.).  
  3. Both President Roosevelt Speech, 1935 and Your Social Security could then be used as ways of deeper learning about how the program was conceived and how it was advertised. 
  4. After reading the Social Security Act of 1935  and President Roosevelt Speech, 1935, students could analyze Your Social Security and discuss the extent to which the source is effective in communicating the intentions of Social Security.  

Students could revisit the list they created in the “Staging” portion to see if the Social Security’s initial purpose matched up to the criteria of “providing for the common welfare.” 

Supporting Question 2What are the effects of Social Security?

This question is designed to guide students into an analysis of who the current Social Security system serves and its overall impact on the American economy. This question also serves as a contrast to the first supporting question so that students can measure the purpose of the program with how it has evolved and expanded over time.  

The formative task asks students complete the second part of a T-Chart (see Supporting Question 1 scaffolds), listing the effects of Social Security.  

Teachers may implement this task with procedures that are similar to the procedures used with Formative Task 1. The Featured Sources include both visual and textual information, so teachers may want to consider how they will ask students to gather information (e.g. guided questions, graphic organizers, etc.). 


Argument: Was Social Security Successful?  Construct an argument (e.g., detailed outline, poster, essay) that evaluates the long-term success of the Social Security program using specific claims and relevant evidence from sources while acknowledging competing views. At this point in the inquiry, students have examined both the early purposes of the Social Security Act of 1935 and the modern effects of that program. They have also examined both primary and secondary sources, political cartoons, and media that have provided a well-rounded view of this important government program. 

Students should be expected to demonstrate the breadth of their understandings and their abilities to use evidence from multiple sources to support their claims. In the summative performance task, students construct an evidence-based argument that addresses the compelling question. 

Students’ arguments will likely vary, but could include:   

  • The Social Security program has expanded and evolved over the years to include more beneficiaries and to cover more than simply the elderly. While this expansion has come at a great cost to our overall budget, the Social Security program has been successful because it has reduced elderly poverty and also provided a safety net for the most vulnerable in our society. 
  • The Social Security program was originally created to protect the elderly and those affected by the Great Depression. While this program has drastically reduced the poverty rate among the elderly, Social Security has largely been unsuccessful as it has expanded beyond its original goals hurting current workers’ benefits and taking up too much of our national budget.  

To support students in their writing teacher should encourage students to use the T-Chart they created in making evidence-based claims and counter claims. By weighing these claims, students will be able to craft a balanced argument using all of the evidence available to them. 


Activity 1

Participate in a mock Congressional committee in which students debate the successes of the Social Security Program. To extend their arguments, students could participate in a mock Congressional committee debate in which they present different sides of the argument to committee members. Students could then complete a short writing proposal to recommend potential changes to the program that would make it more in line with the original intentions of the Social Security Act of 1935.