Was the rollout of Social Security this problematic? Yes, in fact, it was!


Not many Americans still living can recall the launch of the Social Security System back in the 1930s, and fewer still have even read about the problems that arose on that occasion.

It would do us all well to realize that Obamacare is not the first ambitious federal program to encounter bumps along the road to getting it up and running.

Toward that end, there are two helpful articles.


As the Social Security Bulletin recounted on the program’s 75th anniversary, “Keeping a record of each individual’s lifetime earnings was an unprecedented task, and the technology to support this Herculean effort did not even exist.” That the government did it is now seen by historians as “amazing” accomplishment. But when snags arose, people at the time had no idea that would be the case.

An “early crisis,” recalled the Bulletin, was the “John Doe” problem: “Many employers reported earnings without providing a worker’s name or SSN [Social Security number]. The first report from the Bureau of Internal Revenue did not contain SSNs for about 12 percent of the wage items—and this rapidly increased in subsequent reports”…

In other words, as the former Chair recounted later, “They said that millions of people would never get their benefits.”

None of that was borne out. The Social Security Board figured out new procedures to extract information from employers and cut down on the John Does. The Board was not “junked.” It was reorganized into the Social Security Administration seven years later, though that was no shakeup, as the Chair of the old board was kept on as the first Administrator. He wasn’t punished because there were some early problems; he was kept on because he dealt with the inevitable problems…

It’s worth noting that the John Doe problem was not solved in one fell swoop, but gradually diminished over time. In all likelihood, the HealthCare.gov problems will be whittled away at too. And just like with Social Security, they will become an obscure historical footnote.


As some Republicans gloat over the technical hiccups of the rollout of the Affordable Care Act, more popularly known as Obamacare, the glitches aren’t exactly unprecedented.

In his Huffington Post article, “Obamacare Not the First New Program To Have Launch Problems,” Arthur Delaney reminds us of the many challenges social security experienced when it was first introduced.

Allison Linn, in her CNBC article, “Obamacare fight vs. birth of social security: Which was uglier?” adds Medicare to the mix. Neither program was welcomed with open arms.

Social security critics of the time likened the move to socialism, which was a very dirty word for many during that era. Robin Toner’s 2007 New York Times article, “New Deal For a New Era,” which tackled health care while Obama was on the campaign trail, lobbying for the first term of his present job, points out an exchange on Capitol Hill as the idea of Social Security was taking form that Linn also highlights in her article.

“Senator Thomas Pryor Gore, Democrat of Oklahoma, put it bluntly when Frances Perkins, the secretary of labor, testified on Capitol Hill that year about President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plan for a new program called Social Security.”

‘Isn’t this socialism?’ Senator Gore demanded. When Ms. Perkins denied it, he asked again: ‘Isn’t this a teeny-weeny bit of socialism?’”

Today it may be hard to imagine “socialism” as an evil threat but, at the time, many politicians feared the systems being implemented in Western Europe would take hold in the U.S. And this was a bad move in their eyes. Healthcare was so daunting a task that Toner notes even “Harry Truman tried but failed to deliver a national health insurance program.” Of course Bill Clinton also failed to implement his healthcare plan. So, in that respect, that Obama has even gotten this far is a triumph, even if at this moment of government shutdowns and website mishaps it’s hard to discern.

Technical difficulties, as Delaney emphasizes in his article, are not unique to Obamacare. Social security’s difficulties seemed far more insurmountable at the time. “It wasn’t easy,” writes Delaney. “After Congress passed the Social Security Act in 1935, a nascent Social Security Board faced a daunting task: enrolling 26 million industrial workers in less than a year, and another 2.5 million each year after that. One major problem: A lot of people had the same name.”

For many, that reality made Social Security impossible to implement. Alf Landon, the 1936 Republican presidential nominee whom F.D.R. defeated by a landslide, called social security a “cruel hoax” and “fraud on the workingman.” Eventually, as Nancy Altman documents in her 2005 book, The Battle for Social Security, that problem was solved by devising the numerical system that created Social Security numbers.

With that hurdle cleared, another one popped up. “But how to reach the workers?” writes Delaney. Altman, whose book he quotes, explains that “‘Letter carriers delivered applications for numbers, helped people fill out the forms, answered questions about the program, returned the forms to typing centers where the cards could be produced, delivered the cards to the workers, and transmitted the applications of workers together with their newly-assigned Social Security numbers to [headquarters in] Baltimore.’”

Linn notes that Medicare was opposed by the American Medical Association, Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. “In 1961,” writes Linn, “the future president recorded a speech in which he painted a dark picture of a time in which doctors would be told by the government which patients they could see, and where.

If his listeners didn’t oppose Medicare, he warned, the medical plan would be followed by ‘other federal programs that will invade every area of freedom as we have known it in this country.’”

Much like Dr. Ben Carson’s ridiculous claim that Obamacare is “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery,” eagan argued that if Medicare was implemented “. . . one of these days you and I are going to spend our sunset years telling our children, and our children’s children, what it once was like in America when men were free.”

So, in that respect, the Republicans are using an old script. Thankfully history seems to be in Obama’s favor. If Social Security and Medicare made it all the way through to implementation, there is little reason to believe that the Affordable Care Act will not follow suit. And the reality is: it has to.


[G]litches and all, Obamacare, despite Republican strong arm tactics, will prevail because, like social security and Medicare before it, the need is far greater than the opposition.




  1. thehereandnow1

    Your attempt to equate this to the current train-wreck in progress (aka Obamacare) falls short in its first few lines. “…effort did not even exist”. In other words people did not have a Social Security type benefit before Social Security. There weren’t millions of people who had a similar program in place that they were happy with who received notification that government deemed their current savings method inferior and it was being discontinued.

    And please, stop, stop, once and for all just stop trying to cover for Obama’s disaster. He had 3 years, hundreds of millions of dollars, and the best he could do at roll-out was a site that could only handle 1000 people at a time? Any other CEO who had the same time and financial resources and produced a similar pile of crap would immediately be kicked out of their job, not go around lying, claiming ignorance, and blaming others.

  2. aaron.savage3@facebook.com

    The thing is, at the time when Social Security was being rolled out, there hadn’t really been a program in its likeness. It was unprecedented. Medicare came about, and there was much talk of repealing it. In fact, when the Social Security Act became law, Republicans campaigned on repealing it. Fast forward to 2012, Republicans campaigned on repealing it. Barack Obama was re-elected.
    The thing is, it doesn’t matter how much information you give to Tea Party members or establishment Republicans; they’ll always (and sometimes quite creatively, I must add) have some sort of rebuttal. As per Malcolm X, “If you’re not careful, the newspapers will have you hating the people being oppressed, and loving the people who are doing the oppressing.” Any shortfalls this program is experiencing are because of a combination of incompetent developers, who were not hired by Obama himself, and rightwing cyber attacks on the healthcare.gov website and the right trying to sabotage it. It’s like a kid pouring sugar into the gas tank of a car and smugly saying, “See? I told you it wouldn’t work!” A majority of anti-liberals/anti-progressives may not necessarily be hardcore conspiracy theorists, but nearly all subscribe to some sort of conspiracy thinking. If you think this is a “far left Liberal Socialist program,” you haven’t seen anything until you’ve lived in the rest of the developed world. This plan incorporates many Republican ideas. The idea that this is a government takeover of the healthcare system is ludicrous; it leaves in place most of the free-market principles. Congress and the President are not exempt from the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010. They must purchase health insurance through the private marketplace like everyone else, albeit with our tax dollars.
    The only way to quell those who wish to stand firmly in the way of progress is to utilize the weapon of time. Ask Ayn Rand and her cohorts how their tirade against Social Security went. You’ll find that she collected Social Security later in life under a different name. If you look at the entire picture for Obamacare’s enrollment numbers, look not just at the numbers from the healthcare.gov website, but look at the numbers from the state exchanges as well. It’s all part of the ACA. The numbers come closer to 500,000 — far more than what the mainstream media will tell you. The program doesn’t need all of the enrollments to be through healthcare.gov to be successful, and there are call centers for applicants. I also find it quite ironic that Republicans are holding hearings on the healthcare.gov website because of its glitches. It’s as if they are upset that something they hate isn’t working, but is likelier that they’re using this in a petty and futile attempt to score political points. Obamacare isn’t perfect, and it will need tweaked along the way just as all major social programs have, but it’s better than going back to the way things were.

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