Social Security has been a hot topic. For a program that was put into law 88 years ago, it’s kind of funny that lately it’s been trending in social media.
The reason, of course, is that, as President Biden pointed out in his State of the Union address, some Republicans have floated proposals to curb or privatize the popular program.
Republican leaders were quick to distance themselves from such calls issued from members of their party, despite actual proposals mentioned by Senator Rick Scott of Florida and a GOP blueprint for 2023 that called for raising the age of eligibility from 65 to 69.
Conservative politicians have had Social Security in their sights since the beginning of its nearly nine-decade existence.
In his attack on FDR’s proposed Social Security legislation, Congressman John Taber, a Republican from New York, said “Never in the history of the world has any measure been brought here so insidiously designed as to prevent business recovery, to enslave workers and to prevent any possibility of the employers providing work for the people.”
But FDR prevailed—and later Social Security was expanded to include those left out of the original legislation. Still, the free market true believers stayed the course. The 1990s saw another uptick in calls to privatize the system. In the May/June 1997 issue of Southwest Economy, the research director of the Texas Federal Reserve Bank advocated for privatization and commented that such a conclusion “might have seemed extreme two years ago but is mainstream today.”
A right-wing, Koch-funded “seniors’ organization,” 60 Plus (check out their board of directors,) was formed in 1992 to advocate for the privatization (or personalization) of Social Security.
Fortunately, the calls to privatize or eliminate it have been repeatedly met with fierce resistance and have gone nowhere. A 1997 Brookings report embedded a bold prediction in its title: “Privatizing Social Security: A Bad Idea Whose Time Will Never Come.”
Never? Perhaps. The 60 Plus website is now taking pains to assure older Americans that privatization is not in the works. “Don’t worry seniors: there is no such plan,” it claims.
With the cyclical nature of attacks such reassurances do not feel very reassuring, and defending Social Security requires vigilance. We still need to be watchful about once-extreme conservative ideas becoming mainstream—perhaps even more than ever now.
Now is a good time to recall the purpose beyond Social Security, and to remind leaders why it remains a bedrock value in American democracy and society.
Social Security defined America as a country that took care of its elderly, and therefore helped define what it meant to be American. With Social Security, we not only acknowledge our interdependence, we embrace it. We recognize that it is in everyone’s interest—the public interest—for all seniors to live with dignity, not in poverty, regardless of our own current or expected financial position. With Social Security we are literally all in it together, a community of the whole. In our current fractured, faction-fueled moment, Social Security remains one of the few instances of the “We” of “We the People.”
In my book The Privatization of Everything, I devote a chapter to Social Security, very purposely placed in the section on community called “Things in Common.” In it, I wrote, “FDR’s vision for Social Security was to form a national community and wrap every American into it.”
Social Security is often spoken of in terms of its “popularity,” but popularity describes more something that comes and goes, something that “trends.” But it is a nearly century-long sacred compact between generations, among all Americans. When something becomes so woven into the fabric of American society, it’s not merely popular—it’s an expression of an enduring American value—community—a value worth holding on to and even expanding.