Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 2: The Social Security Act


The Lesson


Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935.

Franklin D. Roosevelt signing the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935.

Credit: Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

We can never insure one hundred percent of the population against one hundred percent of the hazards and vicissitudes of life, but we have tried to frame a law which will give some measure of protection to the average citizen and to his family ..."

—Statement of Franklin Delano Roosevelt upon signing the Social Security Act, August 14, 1935

During the Great Depression of the 1930s, unemployment devastated the lives of individuals and undercut the nation's economy. Older Americans as a group were particularly affected by this economic crisis. Improvements in medicine and public health meant people were living longer, yet many elderly Americans faced age discrimination that made it difficult to find employment. As a result, the Social Security Act (SSA) was enacted on August 14, 1935 to help older Americans deal with this problem.

This lesson engages students in the debate over Social Security that engrossed the nation during the 1930s. Students will be given the opportunity to examine the 1935 Social Security Act, and to read, listen, and watch the debates surrounding the development of this important legislation.

The activities in this lesson have students use primary source documents to develop their own points for a debate. In addition, analysis of visual, audio, and video sources will enable the students to evaluate the reasons for the creation of this act and related agency.

Guiding Questions

How did the passage of the 1935 Social Security Act transform the role the federal government plays in the lives of the American people?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to

  • Describe the reasoning of the Roosevelt Administration in creating this act
  • Assess the arguments that were made to support or oppose the act
  • Understand and analyze the ways in which the Social Security Act changed the role of the federal government in relation to the nation's workforce
  • Examine the way the Social Security Act reflected divisions in American society


On August 14, 1935, the Social Security Act (originally called the "Economic Security Bill") was enacted by the 74th Congress to give older Americans a pension that would ensure a reasonable standard of living as they aged. In addition, the Social Security Act provided unemployment insurance for workers, aid to needy children who had lost one or both parents, and disability insurance for workers who could not work on account of an injury.

Franklin Roosevelt had established old age pensions for the State of New York when he served as governor. By the time of his presidency, controversial figures such as Huey Long, Frances Townsend and many others had publicized their own plans for remedying the economic crisis and the plight of the impoverished elderly. The President set up a Committee on Economic Security to study the problem and make recommendations. In the United States, direct federal or state pensions for the poor had a limited history. In Europe, however, there was a long tradition of government action to provide for citizens' economic security.

The Social Security Act was politically moderate. It was to be funded by both employees and their employers, instead of redistributing general tax money. Still, it represented a milestone in moving this country toward a modern welfare state; as a result of this legislation, the United States joined other industrialized nations in offering old-age pensions and unemployment compensation. The move, however, met a great deal of resistance from a variety of constituencies. The links below contain a broad range of perspectives that should help provide background on the issues relating to the Social Security Act.

This lesson revolves around three main points:

  1. The actual message of the Social Security Act
  2. The new role of federal government signaled by the passage of this legislation, and
  3. The way the Social Security Act may have reflected and reinforced inequalities in American society.


Preparation Instructions

  • Review the lesson plan and the websites used throughout. Locate and bookmark suggested materials and websites. Download and print out documents you will use and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Students can access the primary source materials and some of the activity materials via the EDSITEment Launch Pads and worksheets which are listed under "Additional Student/Teacher Resources" in the left sidebar.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Debating the Social Security Act

This activity is available as a series of LaunchPads divided by group.

Step One: Have the students review the Great Depression time line and the section entitled "The Stock Market Crash and The Great Depression" on The Historical Background and Development of Social Security page, and ask them how the Great Depression may have affected the lives of working class Americans.

From this starting point, ask the students to think about how the Great Depression may have affected older workers differently from younger workers. Using this discussion, have your students read the Preamble to the Social Security Act.

After reading the information from these sites, ask the student to answer the following questions:

  • How was the Social Security Act going to provide for Americans in a different way than they had previously been provided for?
  • Why do you believe the Social Security Act identified these particular groups in its preamble?
  • According to the preamble, what problem is the Social Security Act solving? Under this system, what does the federal government do and what do the states do? Why divide their duties in this way?

Step Two: Students will use four primary source documents to learn about the debate over the Social Security Act that took place from 1935-1937. This activity will introduce students to key arguments supporting and opposing the establishment of Social Security; students will then build on this knowledge in Activities Two and Three.

Divide the class into four groups (A-D) and assign one document to each group. These four documents are available as student LaunchPads below. Each group should receive a set of one of the four documents; each student will need their own copy. In their groups, the students should read and analyze their document, then collaboratively complete the following tasks:

  • Describe the role of government discussed in the reading. (For instance, does the speaker call for strong federal government oversight, state control, or very limited governmental support?)
  • Determine whether the speaker believes that the Social Security Act will help or harm the people of the United States. (Students should provide examples from the reading.)
  • Explain the speaker's reasoning, paying particular attention to whether their position is based on evidence, logic, or economic and political ideology.

Do you agree or disagree with the author of your document? Why or why not? Do you think contemporaries would have found his or her arguments convincing? Why or Why not?

If they go to the website for this reading, students should read paragraphs 3 through 7, and paragraph 9.

Step Three: After each group has completed their task, ask the students to discuss their answers to the four questions given above and distributed with each of the handouts. As a class, create a T-Chart to evaluate the reasons why people were either for or against this act. Conclude this activity by asking students to decide which of the positions, taken in the context of the times, was strongest and why. T-Chart is available here.

Activity 2. "Selling" the Social Security Act

This activity is available as a Student LaunchPad.

Step One: Students are to access the Social Security Act posters listed below to identify the ways in which the federal government was trying to build support for the Social Security Act among the American public.

  • Poster 1: Social Security Poster: More Security for the American Family, Old Man
  • Poster 2: Social Security Poster: More Security for the American Family, Mother and Child
  • Poster 3: Social Security Poster: More Security for the American Family, Widow

Step Two: Ask the students to mark up and annotate the images, guided by the following questions:

  • Why do you think this poster was created for the Social Security Act?
  • Who is portrayed in the poster? Which Americans are NOT portrayed in the posters? Why might they be missing from these images?
  • In order to "sell" the Social Security Act to the nation, why do you believe the Roosevelt administration chose these images? Identify the ways in which the federal government attempted to "sell" the Social Security Act to the American people. Explain, using annotations to the actual image, the reasons for your answers.
  • How else could the federal government have "sold" the Social Security Act?

Step Three (optional): Critical Thinking Challenge—Race, Gender and the SSA

After completing steps one and two above in this activity, have the students review the posters above and the training mid-wives photo from this time period (though not related to the selling of the Social Security Act). Once students have looked at these four photos, the students should be encouraged to discuss the ways in which concepts about race and gender were used (or not used) to help sell the Social Security Act. Students annotate the training mid-wives photo as they annotated the Social Security images in Step Two.

  • Who are the people represented in the Social Security Act posters?
  • Why do you think these images or people were chosen for Social Security Act posters? How does the training mid-wives photo portray groups not included in the Social Security Act posters?
  • Do these posters for the Social Security Act indicate any signs of gender or race bias? If so, why do you think that is?
Activity 3. Debating the Social Security Act on the Radio

This activity is available as a student LaunchPad.

Step One: Have students read Digital History's short overviews of Social Security and African Americans and the New Deal. Digital History is an EDSITEment-reviewed website.

Step Two: Access America's Town Meeting of the Air, "Should We Plan for Social Security?" of December 19, 1935 for the debate on the SSA, and download each speech by Francis Perkins and George Sokolsky as outlined in Preparing to Teach the Lesson. Transcripts of their statements are available in a separate PDF. Suggestion: you may have to listen to these recordings more than once for the full meaning.

Step Three: Play Francis Perkins' statement from minute 11:20 to minute 14:50, having your students listen to the remarks that Francis Perkins made in support of Social Security and answering the following questions:

  • Why did Francis Perkins think that the Social Security Act was a good program?
  • How did Francis Perkins describe the role of the states and federal government in administering this program?
  • How did the audience respond to Francis Perkins' statements? Why do you think they responded in that way? If you were listening to this speech as an audience member how would you have responded?

Step Four: Have your students listen to the remarks made by George Sokolsky, playing the audio clip from minute 6:22 to minute 9:35, and answer the following questions:

  • How does George Sokolsky criticize the Social Security Act?
  • How did George Sokolsky describe the role of the states and federal government in administering this program?
  • How did the audience respond to George Sokolsky's statements? Why do you think they responded in that way? If you were listening to this speech as an audience member how would you have responded?

Step Five: The Town Meeting of the Air was a live radio discussion on an important topic of the day. Students will take the role of audience members and continue the discussion. Students should use their notes from Activities One and Two, as well as the radio debate in this activity. The teacher should, in advance, assign some students to roles such as business leaders opposing Social Security, New Deal officials supporting it, some members of state government who might have a comment on the state role, small business owners, workers, women, and African-Americans who might have a variety of perspectives on social security. Specifically, as the students prepare their roles, they should explore and identify how their person would most likely think about the Social Security Act (i.e., how would it impact their life; how would a farmer, factory worker, small business owner, woman, African American, etc. look at the Social Security Act from his/her point of view). The teacher should take the role of the host of the program, moderating the discussion.

Extended Time Option: If you have more time available to conduct this activity, it may be useful to have students listen to more of "Should We Plan for Social Security?" on America's Town Meeting of the Air. By listening to the longer segments of Perkins' and Sokolsky's arguments your students may be able to better identify the role the audience may have played in this debate, as well as what audience reaction might tell us about attitudes concerning Social Security at that time. For example, Mr. Sokolsky's speech received a much warmer response than Francis Perkins' did. What might this reaction imply? Since this activity has your students playing the role of the audience, finding the time to listen to each speech in full may increase your students' understanding of the debate surrounding this topic.


  • Have your students create their own Social Security Act advertisements that either support or oppose the SSA. In groups of three to five, students can create a poster or radio advertisement that incorporates audio and visual elements to support their point of view. They may use material from this lesson in their advertisement, for example, adapting one of the poster images with their own text, or using text from one of the documents they've read. Students will present their advertisement to the class, and then explain their point of view on this topic in detail. With each presentation, have the class evaluate the persuasive power of the presenters' argument. In order to evaluate each group's presentation, the class, as a whole, should develop the criteria for evaluating these presentations. If you wish, you can ask each student to write an explanation of why and how the images and words they've used support their position for or against the Social Security Act, relating concrete details in their advertisement to their beliefs.
  • Students will create an editorial page as if they were writing at the time of the passage of the SSA, in which they predict the successes and problems that this new legislation will face. They are to explain clearly why they are making their predictions, while at the same time they are evaluating the SSA.

Extending The Lesson

FDR's Speech at the signing of the Social Security Act, 1935, Video Clip. (Go to Social Security Online: Sights and Sounds, scroll down to section 2: FDR's Speech).

  • Using the link above, ask your students to outline the reasons why FDR believed this act was necessary. They should focus on the ideas, beliefs, and factual information that Roosevelt presented to support the SSA. Students will then use their outline to draft a press statement which will clearly identify the benefits of this act and also refute opponents' complaints or reservations, as presented Activities One and Three in this lesson.
  • With this activity, it is suggested that students use found or self-created images and charts to reinforce their statement to convince their audience of the importance of this new measure.

Women, the Social Security Act, and the Supreme Court

  • From its passage in 1935 the Social Security Act highlighted many important debates throughout American society. The gender issue is one such debate that was raised by the SSA. This activity introduces students to the fact that women and men were treated differently in the allocation of Social Security benefits. With this activity, students will be presented with different parts of the opinion of Justice Brennan in the Supreme Court case Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U.S. 199 (1977).
  • Access the Califano v. Goldfarb ruling and divide it into five parts to copy and create handouts for student groups (handout 1 - Part I, handout 2—Part II, handout 3—Part III, handout 4—Part IV A, handout 5—Part V B). Divide the class into five groups. Have each group read their section (each student in the group should be given a copy of the section of the decision the group has been asked to read and analyze). Each group should create an outline of the reasons given by the court for its decision in this case. Once they have identified the court's reasons, each group should present the reasons to the rest of the class. After compiling a complete list from the five sections, initiate a class debate based on the following questions:
    • How did the SSA reflect gender prejudices of the 1930s? How were these assumptions being challenged in this 1976-7 case?
    • Why were Social Security benefits for widowers and widows handled differently?
    • How might men in 1935 have felt about this issue? How might women in 1935 have felt about this issue?
    • What is the possible impact of the ruling Califano v. Goldfarb on men, women and families in the U.S.?
    • Was this decision the correct ruling?
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > The Great Depression and World War II (1929-1945)
  • Critical thinking
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis
  • Writing skills
  • David Gerwin, Queens College, CUNY (New York, NY)
  • Kate Hallgren, Graduate Center, CUNY (New York, NY)
  • Steven Jackson, Aviation High School (New York, NY)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources