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Why is it that U.S. workers who lose their jobs, or are disabled, can expect less government financial support than those in Europe or Japan? Most likely it’s a reflection of centuries-old beliefs about the role of government and who is deserving of aid.

Here are some questions and answers about how the U.S. system came to be, gleaned from interviews with historians and economists and information from the U.S. Social Security Administration:


According to a recent Reuters article, The Social Security Act of 1935, which included unemployment insurance and old-age assistance, was enacted in the midst of the Great Depression, when unemployment peaked above 25 percent.

President Franklin Roosevelt summed up his reasons for signing the law as follows:

"We can never insure 100 percent of the population against 100 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."

The United States was slow to embrace social security. By the time the 1935 program was adopted, 34 other countries already had some sort of social insurance program.

In the years before the Social Security Act was signed, populist movements were already popping up all over the country, mostly demanding pensions for the elderly.

One such idea in California, colorfully dubbed the "Ham and Eggs" movement, advocated giving the elderly $30 each Thursday. Critics ridiculed it by conjuring up images of an elderly couple enjoying a big breakfast of ham and eggs when the money arrived, but it caught on among supporters and the name stuck.

Helping the elderly was one of the first social programs to gain popular support in a country that was generally opposed to welfare and looked down upon those who took government handouts. That attitude was softened when it came to retirees who had already put in their years of work.

It was decades later before Social Security was expanded to include disability insurance, and Medicare, the health care program for the elderly. As we now know, SSD benefits are crucial to those Americans in need of assistance who are unable to work.

The U.S. Social Security Administration historian Larry DeWitt offers a thorough review of social security here: here

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