Happy Birthday to America’s Safety Net

“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.” With those words, President Roosevelt signed the Social Security Act into law 75 years ago, on August 14, 1935. The law created our nation’s safety net – Social Security, Unemployment Insurance (UI), and programs for low-income seniors, individuals who are blind, and children.

In this period of high unemployment, the Social Security Act’s UI program provides a lifeline for hundreds of thousands of Californians. UI benefits are modest – averaging just over $300 a week – but they enable families to put food on their tables and make their mortgage payments. In June, 1.4 million jobless Californians received UI checks. Those checks helped nearly two-thirds of the state’s unemployed make ends meet.

The UI system faces a new challenge, however: Workers who search for a job for many months without success. More than 950,000 Californians – nearly half of all of the state’s jobless workers – were counted as “long-term unemployed” in June, having been without work for more than 26 weeks. Nationally, nearly one out of four unemployed workers has been jobless for more than a year. California’s regular UI program pays benefits for half a year, and temporary federal programs provide UI checks for an additional year and a half. As Americans wait anxiously for the labor market to recover, even that additional help is not enough, and more and more of the unemployed are reaching the end of all their benefits without a job in sight.

The Social Security Act was an enormous achievement and a clear articulation of our country’s commitment to help those who face tough times. Its anniversary is a sober reminder of the importance of public structures such as UI in meeting that commitment in these troubled economic times.

— Vicky Lovell and Alissa Anderson

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