The Social Security Act, originally passed in 1935 as part of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal Program, was designed to provide support for the elderly and increase welfare and health programs for mothers and children. While the Act certainly did enforce measures that would ultimately allot higher proportions of funding to these types of programs, it had to progress similarly to the Fair Labor Standards Act in expanding Social Security benefits to women of all ranks and occupations.
In its original form, the Social Security Act provided benefits only to commercial and industrial workers and excluded domestic, agricultural, governmental, or charitable occupations as well as those who were receiving welfare. As we discussed in relation to the Fair Labor Standards Act, these occupations were held most predominantly by women. Thus, its provisions limited its expansion to the female population. It was not until 1950 that these benefits were expanded and women had access to this particular social reform policy, created fifteen years earlier.
In 1939, benefits were expanded to include dependent children of deceased male workers. This section of the program was titled Aid to Dependent Children. Aid was defined legally as money payments, and child was defined as a person under the age sixteen who is denied parental support by reasons of death, mental incapacity of a parent, and/or continued absence from the home. In the case of death, this aid certainly benefitted the child, but the single mother who was left behind did not receive benefits. The gender norms of the postwar era were more flexible than they had been in previous decades, and women were beginning to be more involved in the workforce. Even if they were a working single parent, for example, these benefits did not benefit their children at all, simply because of the gender specifications included in the premise of the act. While it did provide support if the woman became a single mother through the death of their spouse, the support was directed at their children and the mother received no personal support. In addition, the stressors and intensities of poverty create petri dishes for mental health illnesses. A positive aspect of this provision was the inclusion of aid to dependent children who suffered in poverty compounded with the mental illness of a single mother. However, as much as this benefitted the children, it again neglected to provide further support to the mother.
A large sector of the Social Security Act’s Aid to Dependent Children law included grants for maternal and child welfare with the intention of creating and promoting health services in rural, economically depleted communities. This provision would provide an opportunity for women and mothers that did struggle with mental health to receive the assistance that they needed. At the onset, this would appear to be highly beneficial to single mothers in poverty, due to its expansion of the public health sphere which many poor women lacked access to. However, the program was state run, and relied on states proactively applying for grants and planning to increase these institutions in their own counties. Because of this, the expansion of the program limited itself by providing unequal treatment across states. Ideally, the governors and representatives of each state would rely on the voices of its constituents to make decisions, however it provided a great deal of flux in poverty assistance across the country.
Overall, the Social Security Act provided push pins that assisted in welfare and health programs for women and children, which ultimately would give benefits to single mothers and children living in poverty. Its downfalls, unfortunately, included an exclusion of women and particularly single mothers in de jure ways that prevented many single mothers access to these benefits for years after its initial creation. The Social Security Act’s progression in expanding to additional occupations ran in correlation with the Fair Labor Standards Act, at least to an extent.
Excerpt from Senate Report, 74th Congress, 1st Session, H.R. 7260, Social Security Act (Act of 14 August 1935), http://www.ssa.gov/history/indepth.html (accessed 24 February 2005)., by U.S. Congress. Included in How Did the Debate About Widows’ Pensions Shape Relief Programs for Single Mothers, 1900-1940?, by S. J. Kleinberg.