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Social Security history
Although Social Security did not really arrive in America until 1935, there was one important precursor, that offered something we could recognize as a social security program, to one special segment of the American population. Following the Civil War, there were hundreds of thousands of widows and orphans, and hundreds of thousands of disabled veterans. In fact, immediately following the Civil War a much higher proportion of the population was disabled or survivors of deceased breadwinners than at any time in America's history. This led to the development of a generous pension program, with interesting similarities to later developments in Social Security. (The first national pension program for soldiers was actually passed in early 1776, prior even to the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Throughout America's ante-bellum period pensions of limited types were paid to veterans of America's various wars. But it was with the creation of Civil War pensions that a full-fledged pension system developed in America for the first time.)
In 1894 military pensions accounted for 37% of the entire federal budget.
State old-age pensions were also subject to the vagaries of state politics. In Louisiana in 1937, for example, the Governor issued an executive order cutting the old-age pensions of black citizens in half during the months of June and July as an inducement for elderly black pensioners to return to the cotton fields to help with the harvest. In many places throughout the cotton-belt local officials simply closed the relief offices during the harvest season.
The Social Security program that would eventually be adopted in late 1935 relied for its core principles on the concept of "social insurance." Social insurance was a respectable and serious intellectual tradition that began in Europe in the 19th century and was an expression of a European social welfare tradition. It was first adopted in Germany in 1889 at the urging of the famous Chancellor, Otto von Bismarck. Indeed, by the time America adopted social insurance in 1935, there were 34 European nations already operating some form of social insurance program.
One of the earliest American advocates of a plan that could be recognized as modern social insurance was Theodore Roosevelt. In 1912, Roosevelt addressed the convention of the Progressive Party and made a strong statement on behalf of social insurance: