Did Richard Nixon Really Try to Sink Social Security?

By Tom Margenau

April 2, 2014 7 min read

I have more than a few friends, all retired Social Security Administration employees like me, who will go to their graves convinced that Richard Nixon tried to discredit the Social Security Administration and use that as a means to eventually sink our nation's Social Security program.

I've always thought that was a lot of conspiratorial hooey bandied about by folks who just didn't like the former president. But I've got to tell you that lately I've been having second thoughts. I'm nowhere near ready to jump on their bandwagon. But I am listening to their music more and more! It all has to do with the Supplemental Security Income program. Here's the story.

Back before 1972, welfare programs around the country were run at the state, or sometimes even the county, level. That meant there were hundreds, if not even thousands, of welfare programs — each with their own rules and regulations. And of course, each with their own bureaucracies to run them. That in itself isn't necessarily bad. But it did lead to situations where there were wildly different eligibility requirements to obtain welfare benefits from state to state, or even from one county to another within a state. And of course there were different (and often incompetent or corrupt) program administrators from one place to another. There were many documented cases of folks who were obviously eligible for welfare benefits getting denied in one county; while in the next county over, someone who did not meet general welfare criteria would qualify for benefits because he or she knew the guy who ran the area's welfare system.

In other words, welfare benefits around the country were very unevenly and oftentimes very unfairly distributed. So to his credit, President Nixon (or more likely domestic policy advisors within his administration) had the bright idea to standardize the nation's welfare programs for poor people who were over 65 or disabled. They created one national welfare program — with a set of rules and regulations that would apply to everyone in the country, no matter where they lived. In addition to the standard eligibility criteria, there would also be a standard monthly federal payment (it's currently $721) — although they did allow states to supplement that payment. Today, about 20 states add a small supplement to the basic monthly payment.

In addition to all of this, Nixon's policy makers had to make two major administrative decisions. And it's these decisions that have always driven my friends crazy and led to their conspiracy theories.

The first decision was who should run the new program. Rather than create a whole new federal bureaucracy, they looked around at existing government agencies and decided that the Social Security Administration was in the best position to take on the task.

On the one hand, you could say this made perfect sense. SSA was already in the business of running a nationwide government benefit program. And it had the infrastructure to handle the new program. It had major computer and record-keeping systems, and it had a network of field offices in big and small towns all across the country.

On the other hand, you could say, as my conspiratorial friends do, that the new welfare program would fundamentally change the way SSA operated, and more importantly, the way people perceived their local Social Security office.

Before the new welfare program came along, your local Social Security office was usually as nice a government office as you can imagine. A visit to your hometown office was like a visit to a well-run insurance office. It was clean and uncrowded. The staff was pleasant and helpful. And SSA had a reputation for incredible efficiency. Their motto was "the right check sent to the right place and at the right time."

But following the assumption of the new welfare program, everything changed. Because welfare programs are generally a mess to administer (you have to pry into people's money matters, living arrangements and other personal affairs), SSA staff really resented these new duties. And Social Security offices no longer looked like insurance offices. They started to look like ... well, like welfare offices.

That gave the public a more negative impression of the Social Security office, and by extension, or more negative impression of the Social Security program.

The second administrative decision the Nixon people had to make was what to call the new national welfare program. They chose the name Supplemental Security Income. You could argue that the name makes sense. The program does "supplement" a person's "income" up to certain "security" levels. But conspiracy theorists suggest they chose the name because it made the program sound like a supplemental Social Security benefit, thus confusing the public into thinking that the Social Security program was now handing out welfare benefits to folks, some of whom never paid a dime in Social Security taxes. I must make clear that SSI is financed out of general tax revenues, not Social Security taxes. But lots of people don't know that.

Do I really think there was a conspiracy to downgrade the Social Security Administration and to downsize people's opinion about the overall Social Security program? No. But do I think that has been the unintended consequences of some poor administrative decisions made back in the 1970s? I sure do.

Sadly, there is no question in my mind that the service provided by Social Security offices has been steadily declining for years. And a large part of the blame for that has to fall on the SSI program and its impact on SSA. Just as one example: Even though the SSI program represents a fraction of the overall population served by the agency (50 million Social Security beneficiaries compared to about 7 million SSI recipients), running the SSI program soaks up more than half of the agency's administrative budget.

And even more sadly, I've witnessed an erosion of support for the Social Security program over the years. And a not insignificant share of the blame for that decline in support stems from people's confusion about the Supplemental Security Income and Social Security programs. They think of SSI as just another giveaway freebie Social Security benefit. It's not. But I think SSI is a cancer gnawing away at a once noble and honorable institution.

If you have a Social Security question, Tom Margenau has the answer. Contact him at [email protected] To find out more about Tom Margenau and to read past columns and see features from other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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