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Reflecting on 78 Years of Social Security

By Carolyn W. Colvin
Acting Commissioner of Social Security

There are special moments when people look back and evaluate a life or an era: birthdays, class reunions, holidays, anniversaries. Time is, after all, simply the stringing together of a number of events, some small, others significant. These events can speed by quickly, but each one can have an effect on the greater whole. A lifetime of seemingly mundane events can pass in what seems like the blink of an eye … until one looks back to examine them and realizes just how much has filled the space.


When I think about Social Security on the eve of the program’s 78th anniversary, I am amazed by what a significant difference it has made, one event at a time, one person at a time. Over Social Security’s long history, every single monthly payment has made a difference to an American somewhere. But when you string those payments together, it’s remarkable what a huge and positive effect Social Security has had on the people and economy of our nation.

Social Security has been a cornerstone of our nation, touching the lives of almost every American at one time or another, for 78 years. It’s the most successful domestic program in our nation and, arguably, the world.

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law on August 14, 1935, he said, “The civilization of the past hundred years, with its startling industrial changes, has tended more and more to make life insecure. Young people have come to wonder what would be their lot when they came to old age. The man with a job has wondered how long the job would last.” The same can be said of the current information age, with our rapidly evolving digital revolution and periods of economic instability. Social Security is a safety net cast to help those who need it.

President Roosevelt knew that the cornerstone of his administration would offer security, but he also understood that Social Security would need to evolve as new changes challenged the nation. “This law, too, represents a cornerstone in a structure which is being built but is by no means complete,” he admitted. “It is, in short, a law that will take care of human needs and at the same time provide the United States an economic structure of vastly greater soundness.”

Today, Social Security is much more than just a retirement program. We provide benefits to disabled individuals and their families. We provide survivors benefits to widows, widowers and the minor children of deceased workers. We provide Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to aged and disabled people who have low income and resources. We provide work incentives to help people work. We even provide Extra Help with Medicare prescription drug costs. In so many ways, Social Security benefits America.

Milestones come and milestones go. But looking back over the past 78 years of the nation’s most important program, it is those millions of individual moments — the monthly benefit payments — that have made a tremendous difference. In good times and bad, in sickness and health, Social Security has helped Americans. Each payment has helped someone, somewhere. But place them side by side and the difference Social Security has made in the lives of Americans is certainly something to celebrate.

Learn more about Social Security’s rich history at www.socialsecurity.gov/history . Become a part of Social Security’s history by doing business with us online at www.socialsecurity.gov/onlineservices .

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