Commentary: Social Security is still 'our plain duty'

The hum of insects and the occasional bird call punctuated the last Sunday morning in August at Springwood, Franklin D. Roosevelt's family home off the Hudson River in Hyde Park, N.Y.

Dozens of geese roamed surprisingly quietly near the hay bales scattered in the fields between the house and FDR Presidential Library and Route 9, a main artery from Poughkeepsie through Hyde Park and up north to Albany.

Rays from a bright easterly sun pierced the branches of tulip poplars, hemlocks and scores of other trees, straight through to the front porch of the house that first belonged to James Roosevelt, then to his son, Franklin, the 32nd president.

Even though my visit came more than 65 years after FDR was buried in the rose garden, it was easy to imagine why he found refuge on Springwood's peaceful grounds, away from the stresses of restoring a national economy, of engaging in a world war, of governing the world's most powerful country.

The home now is part of a national historic site, surrounded by trails winding through the woods that FDR helped plant and nurture.

The National Park Service, which operates the site, says FDR listed "tree farmer" as his occupation. (www.nps.gov/hofr)

But his interest in natural conservation might be far less remembered than his efforts to preserve the security of American workers.

The library that Roosevelt started and designed is hosting an exhibit, titled "Our Plain Duty," to mark the 75th birthday of Social Security, the cornerstone in the nation's social safety net.

Taking office at the start of 1933, when 13 million Americans were unemployed, FDR spent his first term pushing bold experiments to bring the country out of the Great Depression. He wanted to tax the wealthy, put new controls on banks and create new federal programs to put people back to work.

It was so long ago -- and yet sounds all too familiar again, as the Obama administration struggles to reduce unemployment and avoid another ugly recession.

Roosevelt sought during more than 12 years in office to make the U.S. a place where anyone could live in peace and dignity, free from want and free from fear.

He appointed a Committee on Economic Security, led by Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, in mid-1934, and he defended his ideas in a fireside chat later that year: "No country, however rich, can afford the waste of its human resources. Demoralization caused by vast unemployment is our greatest extravagance. Morally, it is the greatest menace to our social order."

It took from January until August of 1935 for Congress to finalize a Social Security Act that would provide workers with certain benefits paid for through payroll taxes.

"We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family against the loss of a job and against poverty-ridden old age," FDR said in signing the law on Aug. 14, 1935.

Today, payroll tax revenues aren't keeping up with the expenses of paying out benefits. The Congressional Budget Office in July projected that beginning in 2040 income will only be enough to pay about 80 percent of the benefits due -- unless the system is changed.

Among the many options being floated, the most bang for the buck appears to come from taxing more of the income of high-wage workers or changing the calculations for paying benefits when workers initially retire.

But Congress is so divided these days that coming together on a solution in the country's best interest is not the main objective of sparring party leaders. They forget they aren't elected to accomplish their re-election above all else.

Some 53 million people -- retired, disabled and the survivors of deceased workers -- rely on Social Security for some of their income. Millions more wonder whether the money they've paid into the system for years will be there for them when they retire.

Seventy-five years ago, FDR considered a safety net for workers and their families "our plain duty" in promoting the general welfare.

Surely it still is.