Seventy one years ago today, Mary ("Molly") Dewson went to speak to the Women’s City Club of Boston MA. Dewson was an industrial economist, who had been chosen in 1937 to be one of the early Social Security Board members. Reading her remarks today, it’s obvious that some wingnut myths have been with us for a long, long time:
Rugged individualism is grand if the odds aren’t insuperable. But in high-powered, mass-production industry, with its great rhythmic fluctuations of employment and unemployment, the odds are insuperable for a staggering number of men and women. Under such conditions rugged individualism is a losing fight unless all of us get together to provide protection and insurance against certain risks.
As Dewson noted, rugged individualism wasn’t all that effective before the Great Depression, either:
Before the great depression, private philanthropy relieved the misfortunes of a few and satisfied the instincts of the good and charitable. But it left the many to endure their hardships as best they might, until in the last extremity the "poor laws" were invoked to preserve the so-called decencies of civilization. The widespread anguish following the economic collapse of 1929 blew away the rosy fog which we had permitted to obscure these unpalatable realities.
You remember the "poor laws," don’t you? Think of Ebenezer Scrooge’s famous remarks about prisons and workhouses — those were the foundation of the poor laws.
Enter Social Security. The program may have changed since 1938, but the basic purpose has not:
All these plans have one common purpose–to enable every man and woman in this country to come to terms with life according to his own initiative and industry and capacity and courage. They represent only a minimum; they do not–and are not intended to–measure up to an abundant life. Their purpose is simply to give the worker a fair chance, with the cards no longer stacked against him in advance. This much security all of us would surely have for each of us.
Yep. And anyone who wants to deal with "entitlement reform" (yes, I’m looking at you, Jim Cooper and your pals at Heritage and Peter Peterson, too) had better keep this purpose in mind.