TEA PARTY members are advised to avert their eyes.

We plan to say some nice things about the kind of big-government program they have railed against for months. It sucks taxes from workers' paychecks, smacks of socialistic ideals and is sometimes described as too big too fail.

Perhaps you have heard of the Social Security Administration. It turned 75 on Saturday.

If you need proof that even the government occasionally can get something right, Social Security is entered into evidence as exhibit A.

It came into being Aug. 14, 1935, when President Franklin Roosevelt put his signature on an act inspired by the demoralizing effects of the Great Depression.

Edward Berkowitz, professor of history and public policy at George Washington University, offered some context on PBS's "Inside E Street."

"(The Great Depression) crushed the economy like a tin can in a vice," he said. "People began to feel the American economy was a pretty insecure place, despite all the optimism that had prevailed in the 1920s. Someone pointed out what we need is some insurance against the major risks that could befall anyone. That's what President Roosevelt was responding to."


Advertisement

To say the agency began modestly is to say molecules are small. The Social Security Board, as it first was called, began with employees borrowed from other departments. It didn't deduct payroll taxes until 1937 (3 percent of the first $3,000 in earnings) or issue its first monthly benefit check until 1940 ($22.40 to Mae Fuller). The contrast to what exists now is barely fathomable. There are some 62,000 employees -- the government is unparalleled in adding staff -- payroll deductions are 12.4 percent of the first $106,800 (split equally by employer and employee) and the maximum monthly benefit is $2,346. (The figure is based a worker's earnings history.)

The program has come a long, long way from FDR's desk.

Some 53 million recipients receive benefits -- one for every 3.2 workers paying into the system -- only 34 million of which are retirees. Surviving spouses (4.3 million), disabled workers and dependents (9 million) and underage dependents of deceased workers (6.5 million) account for the rest.

Social Security never was meant to provide sole support for recipients, but it has become an increasingly important revenue source. According to the Alliance for Retired Americans, nearly half of all Americans 65 and older would live in poverty without these benefits.

If Roosevelt gets credit for launching the program, an unlikely successor is to be thanked for increasing payouts. President Richard Nixon, who generally is remembered for other involvements, approved annual cost-of-living adjustments in 1972.

Because the federal government wouldn't be the federal government if it weren't stepping on its tail, it has done its best to bureaucratize what began as an independent agency. In 1939, it became a division of the Federal Security Agency. In 1953, it came under the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. In 1980, it was part of Health and Human Services. In 1994, it was rescued by President Bill Clinton, who again made it an independent agency.

For all the tinkering through the years -- tax rates have been raised four times and earnings subject to taxes have increased with the national average wage -- Social Security has remained an unfailingly popular program. When asked in a recent AARP survey conducted by GfK Roper, 57 percent of adults younger than 50 said they would agree to pay higher payroll taxes to keep it going.

Fifty-seven percent of adults can't agree on whether Elvis is dead. (He is, we think.)

The reason for the survey is the program's future financial health. Until now, it has taken in more money than it has paid out -- this happens with government agencies about as often as spaceships visit Walnut Creek -- but that will change as the number of retirees, living longer than ever, continues to grow.

The surplus that the agency has built up in the Social Security Trust -- money the government can borrow for other purposes but must repay -- totals $2.5 trillion now, but it is expected to be exhausted by 2037. What happens then?

"The question," Berkowitz said, "is if this program can adapt.

"Well, it's proved to be pretty resilient in the past."

Payroll tax rates could increase. So could wages subject to taxation. The age for full retirement benefits, determined by birth year, might be raised beyond 67.

But Social Security has survived 12 presidential administrations, which attests to its staying power. It is such a fixture in society that not even the federal government can screw it up.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.