Critics have called the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website “Obama’s Iraq War.” As a result, all the negative publicity has painted a strong argument against the efficiency of the program itself, creating fearful reactions from a large part of the American public. However, in the past, other major government so-called entitlement programs have also had faulty launches and were subject to strong initial criticism. The run-up to the launch of the Social Security Act shared similar obstacles as ACA. And yet decades later, Social Security has continued on to successfully (in the most part) serve millions of Americans.
About the Social Security Act
President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act on August 14, 1935. He appointed a three-person Board to administer it. The Social Security program was scheduled to officially begin on January 1, 1937. The Social Security Board (SSB) was in charge of the launch and implementation of the program. It would take less than 17 months to set up the program’s diverse record-keeping system, a daunting task.
Like current Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, FDR’s Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins was put on the political hot seat because the program launch was under her department. A note: Frances Perkins was the first woman to be appointed to a U.S. presidential cabinet position.
President Roosevelt was not hands-on in the launch of Social Security. Instead he knew how to build cooperation and delegate the implementation of the plan to very capable hands. He established an interagency committee with a professional staff to craft the legislation, and created an advisory council of sympathetic businessmen and labor leaders, both Democrats and Republicans.
Administrative Problems at Launch
The chief administrative problem at launch: the Social Security Board would have to figure out how to register 22 million workers and 3.5 million employers by January 1, 1937. The SSB consulted with leading European financial experts, who stated that it would be “impossible” to maintain a system of such scope for tracking millions of individuals’ earnings histories.
On January 1, 1937, the SSB’s Bureau of Old Age Benefits only had 164 employees to register millions of retirees. This proved to be a glaring embarrassment similar to the Obamacare website launch failure.
When the program came up alarmingly short on the massive amount of manpower needed to administer and implement the plan, the Postal Department came to the rescue. Postmasters and postmen in every state and county went door-to-door registering participants in the Social Security program. They filled in while the government enrolled new Social Security office employees in a training program.
Arthur Altmeyer, one of Social Security’s three top administrators, credited the plan’s ultimately successful implementation to “the employee training program.”
Shortly after Social Security’s 1937 launch, so-called political muckraker Drew Pearson pointed to what he called “The John Doe problem” in “Washington Merry Go Round“, his syndicated newspaper column. Co-written with Robert Allen, the popular column questioned the integrity of the Social Security program, creating fear and doubt among its many readers.
The so-called “John Does” were the employees of bosses who were unaccustomed to reporting Social Security account numbers. They reported employee wages, but without their individual identifier account numbers.
As a result of these initial glitches, Pearson warned that “millions of people would never get their benefits.”
Other media critics also warned that Social Security would result in massive government control, a similar criticism of Obamacare in 2013.
Negative Political Attacks
At the Capitol Hill introduction of the new plan, Oklahoma Senator Thomas Pryor Gore asked Secretary of Labor Perkins, “Isn’t this communism?”
Harper Sibley, president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, warned that Social Security would result in “more unemployment in the future.”
In the 1936 presidential election, FDR’s Republican opponent Alf Landon ran on a platform of repealing Social Security before the program’s launch. He called it “a fraud on the working man” and a “cruel hoax.” He also called it “the largest tax bill in history.” This was similar to the Affordable Care Act criticism facing Barack Obama from the Mitt Romney camp during the last election.
Unlike the Obama administration, FDR’s team was able to hold its own against the onslaught of the negative political and media criticism. Heads of labor organizations as well as union members pitched in by distributing pro-Social Security literature “at the factory gates. Because of this cooperation, millions of Americans were successfully registered.
SSB administrator Arthur Altmeyer credited “awfully good public relations”; in particular “all the literature telling what a wonderful act this was and the benefits to counteract their criticism.”
FDR won reelection in a landslide. Obama also won reelection, but not by such a wide margin.
While Social Security had its glitches, its launch ran comparatively much smoother than the Obamacare website launch.