Happy 79th Birthday Social Security!

Social Security signOn this day in 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act.  Since then this great American landmark has withstood the test of time as well as, if not better than, the nation’s heralded granite and marble landmarks. Today, in addition to offering our best birthday wishes we would also like to offer, from our unique vantage point at Public Works, a few observations about why Social Security continues to earn America’s trust.

In many ways, Social Security, from its name to its design and function, embodies the recommendations Public Works has developed and promoted over the past decade. Namely:

1)      It “leads with core values.” In fact, the name itself includes what communications experts call a “level one value” – security. The human desire to seek security – closely akin to safety – is arguably the most base of all subconscious goals. From the beginning, Social Security, has established itself as a tool for achieving that deep human objective – an increasingly time-tested tool at that.

2)      It is a clear and visible public structure. The way the system functions is relatively simple and it has changed very little over time, creating a deep level of public understanding and trust. Furthermore, it is a very visible effort – we all receive our unique social security number and our cards, the vast majority of us make regular contributions to the system via our paychecks and we all know someone who’s receiving benefits (if not we are likely to be making assumptions about our own benefits once we reach our golden years). In these ways Social Security is much more universal and tangible than much of what government does – characteristics we should strive to achieve more often in public programs.

3)      Finally, its name and its function instill a sense of ownership and “civic thinking.” The term “Social” implies that it is about everyone and about the common good. Moreover, we are reminded by how the program functions (workers’ contributions of today supporting retirees of today and workers of tomorrow supporting our own retirement) of our interdependence over time. Past generations built this system and Americans today see it as their duty to honor that effort by making choices now that ensure that it functions well in the future.

These defining characteristics have allowed the program to withstand the tests of time, including a major privatization effort led by President George W. Bush in the early 1990’s and more recent attempts by Rand Paul and others to scale back the program going forward. These characteristics also offer lessons for us today as we make choices about what public programs are called and how they will function. Do we design programs too narrowly, missing the chance to allow more Americans to feel ownership of them? Do we hide what’s truly public by too frequently allowing private businesses to operate public functions – should Waste Management Systems trucks also have city logos painted on them? And do we name public programs too often these days after what they do (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, for example) rather than the larger public values they represent? For these reasons and the reality that the program continues to provide security for millions of Americans we wish Social Security, a great American landmark, a very happy 79th Birthday indeed.

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