The Changing Face Of Social Security Eligibility

On August 14, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed into law the Social Security Act, a social insurance fund that would, from that time until the present,  enable Americans to retire with funds sufficient to provide them with basic living expenses until they died. It would also provide for life insurance to aid a bread-winner’s survivors upon death. It would fund the care of America’s disabled, and tide the unemployed over to the next job with unemployment insurance. Since that time, hundreds of millions of Americans have paid into the fund and received the benefits, and the U.S. has remained strong, a leader and beacon to the world, the symbol of a nation just, compassionate, and strong. In part, this reputation was established by the Social Security Act of 1935, and this nation is sure to be remembered by history as a nation that valued each and every citizen and cared for their own. This distinction was not so evident at the beginning, when social security eligibility was more restricted than it is today. Recent events may nullify it in the end.

The Social Security Act covers old age retirement, unemployment, public health services, care of the blind, life insurance, assistance to the elderly, aid to families with dependent children, and maternal and child welfare. Social security eligibility meant you were entitled to one of these programs if you belonged to the group addressed. But in 1935 there were other requirements that reflected the definitions and prejudices of the time.

In the beginning of social security, a worker was defined as a working, white male. Half of all women were not eligible for unemployment and retirement, and over a little less than two-thirds of all African Americans were excluded. The discrimination against Afro-Americans was not principally the practice of the federal government, although the exclusion of certain job categories that were performed primarily by minorities was built into the act and thus indirectly discriminated. Racial discrimination was a result of state control of eligibility: southern states that discriminated on the basis of race did not grant eligibility to African Americans, or they would deem them eligible for less than a comparable white worker or family. In some states, children born out of marriage were also deemed ineligible.

Between 1935 and the present, social security eligibility has evolved along with social attitudes about women, minorities, and occupations. In 1935, employees of commerce or industry were covered, except for railroad workers. Between 1939 and 1990, most occupations gained social security coverage, with railroad workers gaining eligibility in 1951. In 1964 women were also acknowledged to have social security eligibility if they were covered under the act and its amendments.

Occupations are no longer a key factor in social security eligibility. You may have several occupations in your lifetime. You are required to have resided in the U.S. for a minimum of 5 years. The most significant factor for eligibility is whether you have paid the taxes that fund social security. Today, 6.15 percent of your gross pay is taxed for social security under the Federal Insurance Contributions Act (FICA). You pay only half that amount. Your employer pays the other half. Each coverage has its own eligibility requirements and you should look into the one you are seeking. The most common concern is how much you are eligible to receive. For retirement benefits, the amount you receive depends on the amount you paid into FICA. For unemployment benefits, the amount is based on your earnings for a specific recent period before you lost your job.

Into today’s economic climate, the question that concerns most is not how much unemployment you will receive, but how long you can receive unemployment. After several extensions since the world financial crisis began, in June Congress failed to extend unemployment. For 2 million people social security eligibility for unemployment has come to an end. Two million now destitute people may signify the beginning of the Great Society’s end. Let us hope social security comes to mean not only the funding of people’s lives during unemployment or old age, but also the security of the nation’s peace and personal dignity for the individual.