An Approach to Social Security

The approximate number of persons to be covered by the provisions of the Social Security Act when all states have enacted cooperating legislation will be:—

Under unemployment compensation—18,000,000
Under public assistance—1,678,000

It is estimated that the federally administered old-age benefits will affect 26,000,000 persons.

In executing the will of Congress through the present Social Security Act we shall, of course, be attempting to build with tools that are not yet perfect. The passage of the Act marks a first step toward social security. The obligation to study and recommend improved means of accomplishing the objectives is expressed in the Act as follows:—

The Board shall perform the duties imposed upon it by this Act and shall also have the duty of studying and making recommendations as to the most effective methods of providing economic security through social insurance, and as to legislation and matters of administrative policy concerning old-age pensions, unemployment compensation, accident compensation, and related subjects.

A major task will be the working out of the most efficient method of keeping the necessary minimum of records. In addition, the Board will have much to learn about the techniques of at least three types of administrative relationships.

One of these is the important relationship between the Federal and the state governments. The need for cooperative action between the two agencies is clear. The geographic location of the state governments, close to the industries within their borders, enables state officials to see at first hand important facts which would be telescoped into insignificance if viewed from a distant Washington. On the other hand, there are certain features of the local terrain whose importance is clear only when they are seen in relationship to other areas, and these can be brought out only by the type of reconnaissance work that can be done from a central point.

A second vital relationship whose technique must engage our attention is that between the agencies collecting taxes and indispensable records and the hundreds of thousands of employees who come within the coverage of the Act. It is from these employers, undoubtedly, that many valuable suggestions for revisions of procedure will come. On the general question of the desirability of social-security measures, the employing group in the country seems to have, quite clearly, an affirmative attitude. There is much more division as to desirable techniques for implementing that attitude. Patient experimentation is definitely needed, with the equally definite understanding that out of mutual contributions to that experiment improved techniques will come.

The third important relationship which we must establish and maintain is our relationship with the general public, and particularly with that large part of the general public who are the beneficiaries of the various security programmes now enacted into law. This relationship is probably the most crucial of all. Only as our work has a basis in a broad popular understanding of what we are trying to do, and the limits within which we must of necessity do it, can the programme achieve any measure of success. Without this understanding, we should run our course between two dangers.

One of these would be the danger of a popular feeling that we were doing too little. Unless the insured worker understands the operation of the fund which is accumulating to his future benefit, he will be inclined to look askance at the exactions from his wages, viewing them as nothing but a deduction from this week's pay envelope. The other danger would be a popular feeling that we could do too much. The difference between the everyday world and utopia is an important difference, and the resources of the former, when applied to the requirements of the latter, are likely to prove inadequate.

Should this latter danger materialize in a desire for unlimited extension of pensions, moreover, it would be a threat to the whole philosophy on which the social-security effort is based. The present Act envisages payments of compensation to those involuntarily out of work and payment of assistance or benefits to those whose earnings during their working life have left no margin of provision for oncoming age. But the ultimate objective of the movement for social security is not the outpayment of unemployment insurance and old-age assistance. It is the establishment and maintenance of a system of social relationships in which the individual's earning power during his working life shall be enough, and continuous enough, to ensure him an old age for which a competence shall have been gradually accumulated as the reward of his own effort.

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