On this day 82 years ago, Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act of 1935 as part of the New Deal. While leftwing mediates are celebrating as if it’s some kind of national holiday, they overlook some of the harsh realities.
There’s real academic debate over whether this was truly a progressive legislative accomplishment.
The Social Security Act of 1935 never would have passed without the support of 141 Democrats from Southern states. They did so after the bill was changed in committee–to include an OSI (old-age insurance) provision–which excluded farmworkers and maids.
At that time, this sector was roughly two-thirds of black workers in the South. As a result of the OSI provision, 65% of the African American workforce was excluded from participating in the program, as well as 27% of white workers.
Ira Katznelson, the author of Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time, has been attacked by liberals for suggesting race was a major factor.
Mr. Katznelson wrote it “is likely” that “the southern wing of the party would have bolted if the legislation had taken the form initially proposed by the White House,” specifically farmworkers and maids.
Larry DeWitt, a historian with the Social Security Administration (SSA), made the counterargument that held employers–especially the American Farm Bureau–opposed the bill because of the burdensome taxes. He also pointed out that the workers themselves opposed the bill.
“At no point did Southern Democrats create the exclusion or push it through Congress,” Mr. DeWitt wrote.
He blames U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., who seriously claimed the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) wouldn’t be able to handle the program if it covered everyone.
Putting aside whether these arguments are in fact public substitutes for private prejudices, they don’t hold up to scrutiny.
For instance, many non-union white workers in the Midwest were also opposed to the bill, yet they still were entitled to the program. As I revealed in my 2013 book, older workers were not exactly begging for an old-age pension.
In reality, quite the contrary was true. Embedded within the work habits of the American labor force was the idea of a duty or calling to labor and, indeed, they wanted to work well into the period we now call “retirement.” But older workers were less prone to cooperate with agitators, otherwise known as labor unions.
During the springtime rehiring season in Detroit, stores stocked extra supplies of black shoe polish, which older workers daubed on their hair to disguise tell-tale patches of gray.
We also can’t ignore what is obvious to those familiar enough with the history to put it in its proper context.
First, Southern Democrats did insist on limiting other New Deal reforms in such a way that it preserved the “racial arrangements” in the South. The Wagner Act, or the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which was sponsored by Sen. Robert Wagner, a Northern Democrat, also excluded protections for minority workers.
Second, these “exclusions” in the OAI provision were only truly addressed almost 20 years later, some in 1950 and largely by 1954. The latter and largest change was passed under Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower and only with the help of Republicans in Congress.
Contrary to popular opinion and belief, with the exception of certain U.S. military reforms begun under Harry S. Truman, this is the period when the civil rights movement began to see progress as it relates to federal government intervention.
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 signed by Lyndon Johnson–also because Republicans defeated a Democratic filibuster–gave previous legislation teeth. But it was not the first bill of its kind with the same goals. President Eisenhower proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and of 1960, both of which passed and were signed into law despite strong opposition from Southern Democrats.
The 1957 version, which was the first federal civil rights legislation passed since the Civil Rights Act of 1875, was approved in the House by a vote of 285 to 126. Republicans lawmakers overwhelmingly (167–19) backed the bill, while House Democrats were very much divided (118–107).
It passed the Senate 72 to 18, with all 43 Republicans voting “Yes.” Democrats voted only 29–18 in favor of it. Democrat opposition came from the South’s sons of “Redeemer Governments,” who had passed Jim Crow laws during the previous generation after Reconstruction.
Mr. Katznelson’s insinuation, which is that race was a driving factor, does not at all contradict the voting records of Southern Democrats. In fact, it was par for the course.