Social Security: Summary of Major Changes in the Cash Benefits Program

Publication Date: May 2000

Publisher: Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service


Research Area: Banking and finance



Title II of the original Social Security Act of 1935 established a national plan designed to provide economic security for the nation's workers. The system of OldAge Insurance it created provided benefits to individuals who were age 65 or older and who had "earned" retirement benefits through work in jobs covered by the system. Benefits were to be financed by a payroll tax paid by employees and their employers on wages up to a base amount (then $3,000 per year). Monthly benefits were to be based on cumulative wages in covered jobs. The law related the amount of the benefit to the amount of a worker's total wages covered by the program, but the formula was weighted to give a greater return, on payroll taxes paid, to low-wage earners. Before the Old-Age Insurance program was actually in full operation, the 1939 amendments shifted the emphasis of Social Security, from protection of the individual worker to protection of the family, by extending monthly benefits to workers' dependents and survivors. The program now provided Old-Age and Survivors Insurance (OASI).

For most of the history of Social Security in the following decades, changes to the program were ones of expansion. Coverage of workers became nearly universal (the only large groups remaining outside the system being employees of state and local government who have not chosen to join the system and federal workers who were hired before 1984). Congress established the Disability Insurance (DI) program in 1956, and, for aged and disabled Social Security recipients, the Medicare program in 1965. Both these programs were financed in whole or in part by additions to the payroll tax rate, which increased periodically, from 1.0% of pay on employees and employers, each, in the 1937-1949 period, to its present level of 7.65%. The types of recipients eligible for benefits were expanded over the years, and benefit levels were increased periodically. In 1972, legislation provided that, beginning in 1975, benefits would rise by the same percentage as the cost-of-living.

Beginning in the late 1970s, legislative action regarding Social Security became more concentrated on solving persistent financing problems. The OASDI trust funds would have been exhausted in the early 1980s if legislation had not been enacted in 1977 raising taxes and curtailing future benefit growth. In 1983, Congress passed additional major legislation that restored solvency to the OASDI program. Recently, worsening projections of financial shortfalls (in 2023 in the DI program, 2037 in OASI and DI combined) again have refocused attention on the solvency of the program. The most recent enacted legislation has provided increased incentives for disabled recipients to return to work, and has repealed the earnings test for recipients above the full retirement age.

This paper describes only the major changes to the OASDI program since 1935. However, information concerning less significant OASDI amendments is also available from the Congressional Research Service (CRS).