An Approach to Social Security

We like to feel that we are living in a world in which a progressive civilization makes us heir to the experience of the race, and progressive intelligence enables us to act upon this experience in ways to benefit mankind. Yet the most superficial glance at the headlines of this morning's paper, the shortest memory of the events of recent years, forces us to recognize that within the span of our own experience the security which civilization should ensure has been jeopardized by war and depression, and that droughts, floods, disease, and dust storms have brought destitution to many, while man's tendency towards race prejudice, class hatred, and economic selfishness continues to make countless thousands suffer.

Generations ago, the Black Death in England was treated as a visitation of the elements. Medical science has wiped out that grim superstition and to a very large extent protected life from sudden death by plague. The skill of the engineer has taught us how to control watersheds and it looks as though we were on our way to learning more about soils, about erosion, and about those things that affect plant and animal life, than ever before in history. Slowly man has learned to recognize natural law and to adapt it to his needs. These advances have contributed to our security.

There are some of us who do not believe that shrapnel and poison gas are necessary parts of modern civilization, or that in this period of invention and productive abundance men and women and children should starve or be without clothing or shelter.

It should not be necessary to emphasize the extent of economic insecurity which exists at the present time; nor need it be emphasized that the economic insecurity of the individual is a problem which is with us in good times as well as in bad. Even in the prosperity of the twenties an average of one twelfth of the employable population was continually unemployed. Before the depression one third of all persons over sixty-five years of age were dependent upon others for their support. We realize that the relative decline of self-sufficient agriculture, the steady growth of the division of labor, the interdependence of markets, and the increasing rapidity of change in all phases of our economic system make for even greater insecurity of the individual.

To meet the hazards of old age, unemployment, and unstable consumption in this modern industrial age the programme for social security has been advanced. We recognize that security is relative. We are not asking that life be stripped of its challenge; we want to lift it from the hazards of enforced idleness, and man's last years from the pit of poverty.

Clearly, security has not simply to do with the periodical payment of nominal sums of money to individuals out of employment or to destitute or aged people. I think we have come to realize that social security affects all our relationships in life. It affects our relationship with the family, with the church, with our neighbors, with the closeness of the factory and the nearby store. We are trying to avoid the type of destitution, the kind of demoralization, that comes when the workers are cut away from all the stabilizing influences of life. A man loses his job—and with it goes his earning power, and, in the lower income group, his capacity for self-support. As the forces of circumstance break down his normal relationships, he becomes isolated, without help or the ability to help those dependent on him. Some men, and their families with them, have repeated that experience many times during their lifetime. No one while under such pressure is quite normal, or can be an effective job hunter.

In our beginnings we were an agricultural democracy, but the census dropped out the frontier in 1890. When our early concepts of conduct were established, before we had entered into the intensified industrial existence that controls economic life to-day, we could say with some degree of certainty and truth that self-support and self-respect and self-government were synonymous. It is not true to-day. In a survey made only a year ago to fix individual responsibility for unemployment, it was found that among a large group of unemployed persons the majority were out of work because of economic forces over which neither they nor their employers had any effective control. And those men were on the street, regardless of character, habits of industry, and technical skill. Such a situation creates a new economic problem. It also calls for changing concepts of conduct; conditions are vastly different from those that prevailed in a simplified Jeffersonian democracy.


In the simpler operations of an earlier economy, individual initiative and native intelligence were measured, far more precisely than they are to-day, by a man's ability to earn. In the complexity of modern social relationships, the need of providing practical means for carrying competent people over periods of enforced idleness is obvious. Unemployment compensation is to protect the willing worker. There are other material factors that I think we must recognize in dealing with people who live on marginal incomes; for instance, the cash store and the mail order houses. Whatever benefits they have brought the consumer by reducing prices, they have not added to the credit facilities of a community. The old credit type of neighborhood store carried many people over periods of temporary unemployment.

We are proceeding on the assumption that a society in which reserves are built up against destitute old age, and against loss of work and the loss of living that goes with it, is a better society than one in which such foreseeable hardships are borne by the individual alone. Part of our task is to meet, with precision and exactitude, payments due at a window in some office a thousand miles away. This involves a detailed administrative procedure of vast dimensions. The fellow that goes to the window and wants to get what is due him does not want to receive instead a screed on the rightness of the programme we are laying down. What he wants and what he has a right to expect is the exact amount of benefit due him at precisely the time it is due. It will not serve our purpose to be good philosophers if we are not good administrators as well.

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