While Congress struggled this week to ensure a comfortable old age for Social Security, we received a reminder of how its founders thought the system would grow up when they first brought it into the world. In 1936, when Social Security began operating, Gertrude K. Burriss was an employee of Swift and Co., supporting two children on a weekly salary of $18. Along with millions of other workers, she received a notice from the federal government telling her about the new system. Mrs. Burriss was thoughtful enough to save that notice as a reminder of how things have changed.
In 1936, government workers wrote more clearly than they do now. As E. B. White noted in The New Yorker magazine at the time, the opening line of the pamphlet, which is reproduced below, was an example of good, simple English. The rest of the pamphlet reminds us that government programs, along with government prose, have grown much more complicated over the years.
"Your part of the tax" required to pay for these benefits, the notice informed its readers, would rise gradually until, in 1949, the worker would pay 3 cents on each dollar earned up to $3,000 a year. And then: "That is the most you will ever pay."
Of course, it didn't work out that way. The tax rate has more than doubled, and the earnings limit has increased more than tenfold. But before you get too nostalgic, let us draw your attention to what the pamphlet had to say about benefits. After 40 years of work, a person earning the then respectable wage of $25 a week was promised a retirement check worth $53 dollars a month. A worker earning twice that could expect $74.50 a month. No health or disability benefits were provided.
Remember too that in 1936 wages were so low that about 95 percent of covered workers earned less than the $3,000 a year taxed by Social Security. Average family income was $1,631 a year. Social Security taxes have increased, but so have the earnings of workers and the benefits they can expect.
The pamphlet talks about setting up an "Old Age Reserve Account." The promise isn't explicit, but the reader might well have expected that somewhere in the recesses of the Treasury--in a separate drawer marked with his name--a person's taxes were to be accumulated and invested to cover his future benefits. Happily for people who have since retired on Social Security, this wasn't the case. If it had been, their benefits would have been only a small fraction of what they actually received. Because Social Security uses each year's tax receipts to cover benefits paid in the same year, the elderly have been able to share in the benefits of economic growth.
Some things haven't changed. The closing lines of the pamphlet read: "What you get from the government plan will always be more than you have paid in taxes and usually more than you can get for yourself by putting away the same amount of money each week in some other way." That, anyway, is still true.