A second look at Social Security’s racist origins

June 3, 2013

In our Wonkblog book club, we've been discussing Ira Katznelson's "Fear Itself: The New Deal and the Origins of Our Time." And there's been an interesting debate about the origins of Social Security — and whether it was originally designed to exclude minorities — that I wanted to pull out and highlight.


A bit of backdrop. In the book, Katznelson notes that the Social Security Act of 1935 might never have passed without support from the 141 Democrats from Southern states. And, the book strongly implies, many of those Democrats only supported the bill after it got tweaked in committee so that it excluded farmworkers and maids — who represented two-thirds of black workers in the South at the time.

As a result of the change, 65 percent of the African American workforce was excluded from the initial Social Security program (as well as 27 percent of white workers). Many of these workers were covered only later on, when Social Security was expanded in 1950 and then in 1954.

"It is likely," Katznelson writes, "that the southern wing of the party would have bolted if the legislation had taken the form initially proposed by the White House" — i.e., a bill that covered farmworkers and maids.

But did southerners explicitly design the program to be exclusionary? Perhaps not. In our last discussion, commenter bharshaw pointed to an interesting counterpoint by Larry DeWitt, a public historian with the Social Security Administration. Here's the abstract:

The author concludes that the racial-bias thesis is both conceptually flawed and unsupported by the existing empirical evidence. The exclusion of agricultural and domestic workers from the early program was due to considerations of administrative feasibility involving tax-collection procedures. The author finds no evidence of any other policy motive involving racial bias.

In his report, DeWitt argues that Southern racism wasn't the reason for excluding so many workers from the original Social Security program. Most of the lobbying came from employers in these sectors — especially the American Farm Bureau — who argued that paying taxes into the system would be too burdensome. (DeWitt also argues that many farmworkers and maids themselves were opposed to being covered.)

DeWitt then sifts through the congressional record and finds — in contrast to other historians — that the Southern Democrats on the relevant committees didn't seem to have much of an opinion about excluding farmworkers and maids. "At no point," DeWitt writes, "did Southern Democrats create the exclusion or push it through Congress." The real push came from Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., who argued that the program would be an administrative nightmare for the IRS if everyone was covered, at least at first.

Now, Katznelson still makes a detailed case that a large number of other New Deal programs in the 1930s were purposefully altered by Southern Democrats so that they both "brought much needed funding to their poverty-stricken region while protecting the character of [the South's] racial arrangements." But with Social Security, at least, there's a strong counterargument that this wasn't ever the explicit aim.

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