There’s no doubt that Franklin Roosevelt was enthusiastic about Social Security— it was the centerpiece of his New Deal. Hell, people in his day and even some in the 21st century called him a dangerous Communist because of his drastic and sweeping social reform that he saw as essential to bringing the country out of the Great Depression. But what would FDR think of Social Security now?
When Roosevelt proposed Social Security in 1935, he envisioned a contributory pension plan. Workers’ payroll taxes (“contributions”) would be saved and used to pay their retirement benefits. Initially, before workers had time to pay into the system, there would be temporary subsidies. But Roosevelt rejected Social Security as a “pay-as-you-go” system that channeled the taxes of today’s workers to pay today’s retirees. That, he believed, would saddle future generations with huge debts — or higher taxes — as the number of retirees expanded.
Discovering that the original draft wasn’t a contributory pension, Roosevelt ordered it rewritten and complained to Frances Perkins, his labor secretary: “This is the same old dole under another name. It is almost dishonest to build up an accumulated deficit for the Congress . . . to meet.”
But Roosevelt’s vision didn’t prevail. In the 1940s and early 1950s, Congress gradually switched Social Security to a pay-as-you-go system. Interestingly, a coalition of liberals and conservatives pushed the change. Liberals wanted higher benefits, which — with few retirees then — existing taxes could support. Conservatives disliked the huge surpluses the government would accumulate under a contributory plan.