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Social Security Act of 1935

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Social Security Act of 1935


The Social Security Act, United States.

Overview

The Social Security Act was drafted during Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first term by the President's Committee on Economic Security, under Frances Perkins, and passed by Congress as part of the Second New Deal. The act was an attempt to limit what were seen as dangers in the modern American life, including old age, poverty, unemployment, and the burdens of widows and fatherless children. By signing this act on August 14, 1935, President Roosevelt became the first president to advocate federal assistance for the elderly.[2]

The Act provided benefits to retirees and the unemployed, and a lump-sum benefit at death. Payments to current retirees are financed by a payroll tax on current workers' wages, half directly as a payroll tax and half paid by the employer. 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).[2]

Constitutionality

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.[3] 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[4] Chief Justice Charles Evan 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.[5]

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 justice 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[6] 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[7]:419 and that the delayed announcement of the decision created the false impression that the Court had retreated under fire.[7]:419 Following the vast support that was demonstrated for the New Deal through Roosevelt's re-election in 1936,[7]: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[7]: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.[7]: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;[7]: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.[7]:414

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

  • Steward Machine Company v. Davis, 301 U.S, 548[8] (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.

References

See also

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