Book review: The Battle for Social Security

by Mary Savage

On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Americans and the world watched in shock and disbelief as the World Trade Center towers collapsed onto Lower Manhattan. By Oct. 3, among the first to receive monetary benefits from the tragedy were employees and survivor family members of the New York Police Department, the Fire Department and the Port Authority. Those benefits had been quickly organized and managed for distribution by the Social Security Administration.

So begins author Nancy J. Altman›s book The Battle for Social Security: From FDR’s Vision To Bush’s Gamble. This is a well-written and copiously detailed chronicle that tells of the dire need for an American social insurance program, the personalities who helped in its establishment, and the obstacles and threats the program faced and continues to face to this very day. 

If you’re looking for interesting reading and have a curiosity and appreciation for history, this book is for you.

Signed into law on Aug. 14, 1935 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Social Security continues to be America’s best-loved anti-poverty program that provides an income for senior citizens, the disabled, the unemployed and children of deceased workers. But this was not an easy achievement, as Altman’s book reveals. The author also shares in compelling words the bleak cultural reality of the time: The poorhouse where the elderly whose families could not care for them went to live and die. As Altman declares in the book, “The poorhouse was a fate to be dreaded.”

This book is an exciting page-turner that credits those who helped create and launch the Social Security program, including Francis Perkins, the first woman to serve as Secretary of Labor; First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, whose speaking tours supported the vision of ending poverty in old age; and John R. Commons, known as the “Grandfather of Social Security.” 

While the Social Security Administration stepped up to quickly provide 9/11 survivors their benefits, enemies of the program had their sights on its destruction. George W. Bush took alarming steps towards privatization, which would have destroyed Social Security and turned it over to Wall Street. (And today, Florida Sen. Rick Scott wants to “sunset” Social Security and Medicare in order “to save it.”) Read the book to learn more.

Nancy J. Altman has a 40-year background in the study of Social Security and private pensions. She is co-director of Social Security Works and co-chairs the Strengthen Social Security coalition and campaign. Other books by Altman include Social Security Works and Social Security Works for Everyone.

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