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Not Your Great-Grandmother's Social Security

by Joan Entmacher, Vice President for Family Economic Security,
National Women's Law Center

Social Security turns 75 next month, and we're getting ready to celebrate the anniversary of this enduring, successful, and vitally important program. But we also celebrate the changes that have made the program even better for women since President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed it into law on August 14, 1935.

A few highlights in the history of Social Security, from a women’s perspective:

  • 1939:  Social Security becomes a family insurance program, not just a worker retirement program. Spouses and children gain protection against the loss of income when a worker retires or dies.
  • 1950:  Coverage was expanded to domestic and farm workers, and benefits were significantly increased.
  • 1956:  Disability insurance was added.
  • 1965:  Divorced spouses become eligible for benefits if married for 20 years.
  • 1972:  Automatic cost of living adjustments were enacted, protecting benefits from being eroded by inflation over women's longer lifespans. The widow's benefit was increased to 100 percent of the worker's benefit, if both spouses claimed at their full retirement age.
  • 1977:  Marriage duration requirement reduced to 10 years.  Supreme Court ruled that requiring widowers but not widows to show dependency was unconstitutional.

For those of you who are thinking, that's interesting, but will Social Security be there for me and my grandchildren? The answer is yes. Social Security can pay 100 percent of promised benefits until 2037, and 76 percent of benefits after that, even with no changes, from the payroll taxes it receives. Currently, it has over $2.5 trillion in reserves in interest-bearing U.S. Treasury bonds, entitled to the full faith and credit of the United States. There is a long-term shortfall in Social Security's finances, but it's manageable — indeed, it’s about the same cost as extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans. 

We're working to protect and strengthen Social Security. We hope you'll join us in that campaign—and in celebrating Social Security!

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