What Motivated FDR to Push For the Social Security Act

"It was definitely controversial at the time." That's how historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes President Franklin Roosevelt's battle to enact Social Security legislation in the 1930's. We went to Goodwin, author of "No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II" for some perspective as Congress debates whether to raise the retirement age for the system, now 66, up to 69 or 70.

Goodwin says there were two motivating factors behind FDR's push for the Social Security Act. First, "there was an immediate need to do something about older people who were devastated by the depression." But more broadly "what he wanted to do was to establish a principal that somehow if people had worked all their lives, we the Americans owed them security."

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Another intention was to get older workers to retire, so younger workers could get jobs. "And it's ironic today that we're in the opposite direction in wanting older people to work longer, so that we can keep paying them."

But no one knew then how significantly life expectancy would grow. More than 53 million Americans now receive Social Security payments. "At that time, in 1930," Goodwin says, "only 6 percent of the people were over the age of 65."

When he signed the legislation in 1935, FDR understood the importance of the moment. "It seems to me," he said, "that if the Senate and the House of Representatives in this long and arduous session have done nothing more than pass this Social Security Act, the session will be regarded as historic for all time."

But Goodwin says even FDR could not have realized how Social Security would become some imprinted on the minds of the American people.

"These politicians have a lot of challenges on their hands to figure out how to deal with this sacred institution."

  • Anthony Mason

    CBS News senior business and economics correspondent; Co-host, "CBS This Morning: Saturday"