Sunday, August 14 is the 81st anniversary of our Social Security system. While few of us were alive to celebrate the system’s first anniversary in 1936, even fewer have living memories of the social problems that gave rise to it. At the time, half of all seniors were living in poverty, individual retirement savings plans like 401(k)s were 40 years away, and depression-era workers were having a hard enough time providing for themselves and their children, let alone supporting their parents and grandparents. What are we to make today of a program that was created in an almost unrecognizable industrial economy?
For one thing, finding value in Social Security today doesn’t require looking back to the original problems the program was designed to solve. Sure, without Social Security, 42 percent of seniors would still be living in poverty, instead of the current 10 percent. And two-thirds of people age 65 and over would be living on less than half of their current income. But it’s worth recognizing how adeptly this 81-year-old program solves today’s unique economic problems.