August 12,2010

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Baucus Floor Statement Regarding Social Security’s 75th Birthday

Mr. President, I celebrate and honor the venerable life, not of a person, but of the most important and successful domestic program in our nation’s history.  On August 14, Social Security will turn 75.

In a special Message to Congress in June 1934, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated the promise of Social Security, saying:

“If, as our Constitution tells us, our Federal Government was established among other things, ‘to promote the general welfare,’ it is our plain duty to provide for that security upon which welfare depends.”

President Roosevelt outlined his intention to “undertake the great task of furthering the security of the citizen and his family through social insurance.”  Executive Order 6757 created the Committee on Economic Security, putting his plan into action. The Committee included five cabinet level officials and 21 government experts from several Federal agencies.

At the Committee’s 25th birthday celebration, Francis Perkins, who was Secretary of Labor and member of the Committee on Economic Security, recounted the work of that Committee.  And she remembered an embarrassing oversight in the rush to create it — the Committee had not been funded.  But that was not going to stop its members.  Relying on a small personal loan from one Committee member, the Committee hired unemployed stenographers and typists and recruited professionals and experts to help out. They sent a telegram that stated:

“We have no money. We can pay your railroad fare and your expenses if you really need expenses while you are in Washington, but there is no salary.”

The response was huge.  And a team of great minds converged on Washington, D.C., in the heat of August, long before air conditioning. They worked tirelessly.  And about six months later, in early January 1935, they presented their Committee report to the President.  He, in turn, brought it to Congress.

Congress heard the call.  Or perhaps Congress heard the voices of its constituents.  Or perhaps Members of Congress carried with them the pictures of closed factories, desolate farms, and breadlines that weaved around city blocks.  Unemployment topped 20 percent, and the homeless population was growing.

In a 1962 speech, Francis Perkins described the backdrop of the creation of Social Security:

“People were so alarmed… the specter of unemployment — of starvation, of hunger, of the wandering boys, of the broken homes, of the families separated while somebody went out to look for work — stalked everywhere. The unpaid rent, the eviction notices, the furniture and bedding on the sidewalk, the old lady weeping over it, the children crying, the father out looking for a truck to move their belongings himself to his sister's flat or some relative's already overcrowded tenement, or just sitting there bewilderedly waiting for some charity officer to come and move him somewhere. I saw goods stay on the sidewalk in front of the same house with the same children weeping on top of the blankets for three days before anybody came to relieve the situation!”

Congress went to work.  Committees held hearings, and a long list of individuals and groups, charities, hospitals, industries, actuaries, historians, and interested citizens testified.  There were debates and arguments, compromises and drafts, more drafts and then more meetings and compromises.  And then, seven months later, on Wednesday, August 14, 1935, at about 3:30 in the afternoon, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law. 

Upon the law’s enactment, the President appointed a three-person Social Security Board to run the new program.  One of the Board’s first daunting tasks was to register employers and workers by January 1, 1937, when workers would begin earning credits toward old-age insurance benefits.  The Board contracted with the Post Office to distribute applications, and numbers were assigned in local post offices.  Long before computers, typists created each card in typing centers and delivered it to Social Security’s headquarters in Baltimore.  Between November 1936 and June 1937, Social Security issued more than 30 million Social Security numbers through this manual process.  By June 30, 1937, Social Security had established 151 field offices, and these field offices took over the task of assigning Social Security numbers.

Over the course of the next several decades, Social Security expanded to help more people secure themselves, as President Roosevelt said, “against the hazards and vicissitudes of life.”  In 1939, Congress broadened the program to include payments to dependents and survivors of retirees.  In 1956, Congress created the disability program and later expanded the program to include benefits for dependents of disabled workers.

The Social Security Act of 1965 created a new social insurance program called Medicare that extended health coverage to almost all Americans aged 65 or older or receiving disability benefits.

In 1969, under the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, Social Security began processing claims for disabled coal miners suffering from black lung disease and to their dependents or survivors. 

Legislation passed in 1972 provided for automatic annual cost-of-living allowances and created the Supplemental Security Income program.  SSI, funded from general revenues, provides a small benefit to people with limited income who have reached age 65 or are blind or disabled.

The Social Security Amendments of 1980 made many changes in the disability program.  Most focused on various work incentive provisions for disability beneficiaries. 

In the early 1980s, the Social Security program faced a financial crisis.  President Ronald Reagan appointed the Greenspan Commission to study the issues and make recommendations on how to sustain Social Security.  In 1983, Congress enacted comprehensive changes in Social Security coverage, financing, and benefit structure.

On December 17, 1999, President Bill Clinton signed the “Ticket to Work and Work Incentives Improvement Act,” which placed greater emphasis on assisting beneficiaries in efforts to return to work.

In 2003, Congress enacted the Medicare Prescription Drug, Improvement, and Modernization Act to give seniors extra help in paying for prescription medications.

Throughout the years, Congress passed amendments, added programs, and addressed issues with Social Security.  Presidents from both parties repeatedly acknowledged Social Security’s importance. 

President Richard Nixon said, “This Nation must not break faith with those Americans who have a right to expect that Social Security payments will protect them and their families.”

A few years later, President Jimmy Carter said, “The Social Security program represents our commitment as a society to the belief that workers should not live in dread that a disability, death or old age could leave them or their families destitute.”

Today, Social Security benefits are essential to the economic security of millions of Americans.  An estimated 159 million workers, or about 94 percent of all workers, are covered under Social Security.  Social Security is critical, as 52 percent of the workforce has no private pension coverage, and 31 percent has no savings set aside for retirement.

In 2009, nearly 51 million Americans received a total of $672 billion in Social Security benefits. In Montana, 181,000 of our 975,000 residents — or about 19 percent of all Montanans — receive Social Security benefits.  The payments were modest, with the average retiree receiving about $14,000 annually.  The average monthly benefit for a disabled beneficiary was about $1,060. 

Virginia Reno, Vice President for Income Security from the National Academy of Social Insurance testified before the Subcommittee on Social Security:  “If seniors had to count on only their income other than Social Security, almost one out of two would be living in poverty.”

Social Security is anchored by a promise between generations.  But its success has been due in large part to the vision and sincerity of its creators and the ongoing commitment of its stewards, the public trustees, Advisory Board members, Members of Congress and the approximately 70,000 employees who work for Social Security.  As well, we owe a debt to the thousands of dedicated employees who have worked for Social Security since its inception.  For those that have embodied the agency’s mission, “to promote the economic security of the nation’s people through compassionate and vigilant leadership in shaping and managing America’s Social Security programs,” we owe a big thank you. 

Social Security’s success was not built with the stroke of a pen.  Social Security did not simply survive for 75 years.  Rather, Social Security was built by embracing the promise of assisting people through life’s hazards.

In a campaign speech in 1944, President Roosevelt said, “The future of America, like its past, must be made by deeds — not words.”  Social Security is the embodiment of many good deeds.  In times of crisis, over and over again, Social Security has risen to the challenge.

Fifteen years ago, a bomb in Oklahoma City took the life of fifteen Social Security employees, one office volunteer, and 21 office visitors.  Social Security employees across the country responded to help survivors and the families of victims.  Employees from around the country converged on Oklahoma to assist taking claims, answering questions, and providing comfort to the hundreds of victims and their families.

Following the devastation of September 11, 2001, employees in the New York Region immediately came to the assistance of families of those killed in the World Trade Center, at the Pentagon, and at the plane crash site in Pennsylvania, so that claims could be taken and paid as quickly as possible.  Social Security allowed payment of survivors’ claims with airline manifests or employer records rather than death certificates.  Within days, Social Security launched a full-scale outreach effort to find families of victims and help them apply for benefits.  A special webpage was set up.  Public information spots aired on television.  And Social Security contacted about 60 consulates to ensure that foreign survivors who might be eligible for benefits were reached.

By December 2001, Social Security had taken more than 5,000 disaster-related claims.  Social Security set up Family Assistance Centers at Pier 94 in Manhattan and Liberty State Park in New Jersey.  The New York Regional Commissioner continued to work with the Bureau of Vital Statistics to post death certificates for the survivors of victims whose bodies had not been recovered. 

Social Security was also one of the first agencies at the Pentagon Family Assistance Center in Virginia offering assistance to victims and their families.  In Pennsylvania, Social Security staff assisted family members of victims on applying for benefits.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Social Security moved quickly to ensure that monthly payments to beneficiaries continued uninterrupted.  Immediate payment procedures allowed for on-the-spot payments if beneficiaries could not get their benefit check.  Social Security opened a temporary office in the Houston Astrodome, and provided service seven days a week.  Social Security employees were on site at FEMA’s Family Assistance Centers, and many offices offered extended hours of service through Labor Day weekend to help evacuees.

Just recently, in my home state of Montana, in the old city hall building next to the Libby Police Department in Lincoln County, eight employees from Social Security arrived.  They quickly set up a processing center to assist the victims of the Environmental Protection Agency’s first-ever public health emergency.  The Social Security employees tirelessly answered questions and handled a steady stream of claims from applicants diagnosed with asbestos-related disease.  Social Security’s work helping the good people in and around Libby, Montana, was deeply important to me. 

Social Security has been described as the bedrock of our industrial society.  It has been called the beacon of light for those on life’s stormy seas.  It has been called a pillar of our democracy.  Social Security offers Americans peace of mind.

Social Security has lived up to its message.  It has stood as a silent partner to those in need.  It has done all this by sending about 99 percent of its annual budget back to the people as benefit payments.  Only about one percent of Social Security’s budget goes toward administrative expenses.  The rest fulfills the promise of its mission.

Social Security can and should work for the next 75 years, and for generations beyond that.  Now that Social Security is here, now that Social Security has proven itself, it’s up to all of us to protect and maintain it.  It’s up to us to assure the millions of Americans that currently rely on Social Security and the millions more who pay into it that Social Security is a promise that we can and will keep.

In the words of Carl Sandburg, “In these times you have to be an optimist to open your eyes when you awake in the morning.”  Our optimism can be found in the accomplishments of Social Security.  I celebrate its 75th birthday.