Social Security Act

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Social Security Act
Great Seal of the United States
Statutes at Large Pub.L. 74–271, 49 Stat. 620, enacted August 14, 1935
U.S.C. sections created 42 U.S.C. ch. 7
Legislative history
  • Introduced in the House as H.R. 7260
  • Passed the House on April 19, 1935 (372-33)
  • Signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on August 14, 1935
Major amendments
Social Security Amendments of 1965
United States Supreme Court cases
Steward Machine Company v. Davis, Helvering v. Davis
President Roosevelt signs the Social Security Act, at approximately 3:30 pm EDT on August 14, 1935.[1] Standing with Roosevelt are Rep. Robert Doughton (D-NC); unknown person in shadow; Sen. Robert Wagner (D-NY); Rep. John Dingell (D-MI); Rep. Joshua Twing Brooks (D-Pennsylvania); the Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins; Sen. Pat Harrison (D-MS); and Rep. David Lewis (D-MD).

The Social Security Act, Pub.L. 74–271, 49 Stat. 620, enacted August 14, 1935, now codified as 42 U.S.C. ch. 7, was a social welfare legislative act which created the Social Security system in the United States. Although the program has been altered since its signing, the original purpose was to provide federal assistance to those unable to work.


Some proposed changes[edit]

One of the most influential pieces of legislation that came out of the [(Second New Deal)] was the Social Security Act, which was signed into law by [(President Franklin D. Roosevelt)] on August 14, 1935. The act laid the groundwork for the modern welfare state in America with its primary focus to provide aid for the elderly, the unemployed, and children. The provisions for the elderly, the unemployed, and children impacted not only future amendments to the act, but how the United States cares for its underprivileged individuals.


Some proposed changes[edit]

Industrialization and the urbanization that followed created many new social problems, and transformed ideas of how society and the government should function together because of them. As industry expanded, cities grew quickly to keep up with demand for labor. Tenement houses were built quickly and poorly, cramming new migrants from farms and Southern and Eastern European immigrants into tight and unhealthy spaces. Work spaces were even more unsafe.[2] In 1890, [(Jacob Riis)] wrote that “the quick change of economic conditions in the city…often out paces all plans of relief.”

The Act also gave money to states to provide assistance to aged individuals (Title I), for unemployment insurance (Title III), Aid to Families with Dependent Children (Title IV), Maternal and Child Welfare (Title V), public health services (Title VI), and the blind (Title X).[3]


In the 1930s, the Supreme Court struck down many pieces of Roosevelt's New Deal legislation, including the Railroad Retirement Act. The Court threw out a centerpiece of the New Deal, the National Industrial Recovery Act, the Agricultural Adjustment Act, and New York State's minimum-wage law. President Roosevelt responded with an attempt to pack the court via the Judicial Procedures Reform Bill of 1937. On February 5, 1937, he sent a special message to Congress proposing legislation granting the President new powers to add additional judges to all federal courts whenever there were sitting judges age 70 or older who refused to retire.[4] The practical effect of this proposal was that the President would get to appoint six new Justices to the Supreme Court (and 44 judges to lower federal courts), thus instantly tipping the political balance on the Court dramatically in his favor. The debate on this proposal lasted over six months. Beginning with a set of decisions in March, April, and May 1937 (including the Social Security Act cases), the Court would sustain a series of New Deal legislation[5] Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes played a leading role in defeating the court-packing by rushing these pieces of New Deal legislation through and ensuring that the court's majority would uphold it.[6]

In March 1937, Associate Justice Owen Roberts, who had previously sided with the court's four conservative justices, shocked the American public by siding with Hughes and the court's three liberal justices in striking down the court's previous decision in the 1923 case Adkins v. Children's Hospital, which held that minimum wage laws were a violation of the Fifth Amendment's due process clause and were thus unconstitutional, and upheld the constitutionality of Washington state's minimum wage law in West Coast Hotel Co. v. Parrish. In 1936, Roberts joined the four conservative justices in using the Adkins decision to strike down a similar minimum wage law New York state enforced in Morehead v. New York ex rel. Tipaldo[7] and his decision to reverse his previous vote in the Morehead decision would be known as the switch in time that saved nine. In spite of widespread speculation that Roberts only agreed to join the court's majority in upholding New Deal legislation, such as the Social Security Act, during the spring of 1937 because of the court packing plan, Hughes wrote in his autobiographical notes that Roosevelt's court reform proposal "had not the slightest effect on our [the court's] decision" in the Parrish case[8]:419 and that the delayed announcement of the decision created the false impression that the Court had retreated under fire.[8]:419 Following the vast support that was demonstrated for the New Deal through Roosevelt's re-election in 1936,[8]:422–23 Hughes persuaded Roberts to no longer base his decisions on political maneuvering and side with him in future cases that involved New Deal legislation[8]:422–23

Records show Roberts had indicated his desire to overturn the Adkins decision two days after oral arguments concluded for the Parrish case on December 19, 1936.[8]:413 During this time, however, the court was divided 4-4 following the initial conference call because Associate Justice Harlan Fiske Stone, one of the three liberal justices who continuously voted to uphold New Deal legislation, was absent due to an illness;[8]:414 with this even division on the Court, the holding of the Washington Supreme Court, finding the minimum wage statute constitutional, would stand. As Hughes desired a clear and strong 5–4 affirmation of the Washington Supreme Court judgment, rather than a 4–4 default affirmation, he convinced the other justices to wait until Stone's return before both deciding and announcing the case.[8]:414

Court Rulings[edit]

Two Supreme Court rulings affirmed the constitutionality of the Social Security Act.

  • Steward Machine Company v. Davis, 301 U.S, 548[9] (1937) held, in a 5–4 decision, that, given the exigencies of the Great Depression, "[It] is too late today for the argument to be heard with tolerance that in a crisis so extreme the use of the moneys of the nation to relieve the unemployed and their dependents is a use for any purpose narrower than the promotion of the general welfare". The arguments opposed to the Social Security Act (articulated by justices Butler, McReynolds, and Sutherland in their opinions) were that the social security act went beyond the powers that were granted to the federal government in the Constitution. They argued that, by imposing a tax on employers that could be avoided only by contributing to a state unemployment-compensation fund, the federal government was essentially forcing each state to establish an unemployment-compensation fund that would meet its criteria, and that the federal government had no power to enact such a program.
  • Helvering v. Davis, 301 U.S. 619 (1937), decided on the same day as Steward, upheld the program because "The proceeds of both [employee and employer] taxes are to be paid into the Treasury like internal-revenue taxes generally, and are not earmarked in any way". That is, the Social Security Tax was constitutional as a mere exercise of Congress's general taxation powers.

Development of law[edit]

  • Flemming v. Nestor, 363 US 603 (1960) upholding §1104, allowing Congress to itself amend and revise the schedule of benefits. Further, however, recipients of benefits had no contractual rights to them.
  • Goldberg v. Kelly 397 US 254 (1970) Brennan J held there must be an evidentiary hearing before a recipient can be deprived of government benefits under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
  • Weinberger v. Wiesenfeld (1975) held that a male widower should be entitled to his deceased wife's benefit just as a female widow was entitled to a deceased husband's, under the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "History 1930". Social Security Administration. Retrieved May 21, 2009. 
  2. ^ Butler, Chris. ", "The Social Impact of Industrialization," The Flow of History". Flow of History. Retrieved 24 October 2016. 
  3. ^ Achene, Andrew (1986). Social Security Visions and Revisions. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 25-6.
  4. ^ Archived October 6, 2008, at the Wayback Machine.‹The template Wayback is being considered for merging.› 
  5. ^ "Social Security Administration". Retrieved 2011-09-11. 
  6. ^ [11]. Retrieved on 2013-08-12.
  7. ^ 298 U.S. 587 (1936)
  8. ^ a b c d e f g McKenna, Marian C. (2002). Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Constitutional War: The Court-packing Crisis of 1937. New York, NY: Fordham University Press. ISBN 978-0-8232-2154-7. 
  9. ^ "Steward Machine Company vs. Davis, 301 U.S, 548". Archived from the original on November 28, 2005. Retrieved December 3, 2005.