Stanford G. Ross

small photo of Stan Ross


Stanford G. Ross served as Commissioner of Social Security in 1978-79. Currently a Washington attorney, he served in many high-ranking government positions including Chairman of the Advisory Council on Social Security and Chief General Counsel of the Department of Transportation.

"Meeting the Income Security Needs of the Nation"
As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the enactment of Social Security, it is an appropriate time both to look back and to look forward. As we look back, we can see that enactment of this law was perhaps the most fundamental domestic social action in the history of the United States. With enactment of Social Security, the Federal Government took primary responsibility for the income security needs of the Nation. Over the past 50 years we have seen the Federal Government through direct action, such as Social Security and SSI, and indirect action through providing tax incentives and regulation for private and individual income security programs, develop a massive system of needed support for the people of the United States.

It is important as we survey the past, however, not to lose sight of the problems as well as the successes. The successes are clear enough. We now have on the public side a virtually universal pension system in Social Security, a broad-based national supplemental security income system, health programs and other social programs. On the private side, we have a large private pension system that supplements Social Security, and widespread health care, life insurance, disability income, and other private welfare programs. The income security of our people has never been stronger.

However, we have also seen that as the public sector programs have expanded, they have contributed to major governmental problems today. We have a large deficit and we have an unjust tax code. Since income security programs make up almost 50 percent of the Federal budget, their contribution to the deficit and their participation in the solutions to the deficit problem must not be glossed over. Since we have an unjust tax system, enactment of comprehensive tax reform in the interests of fairness, simplicity and economic efficiency must take account of the major tax subsidization of private and individual income security measures. These are not easy issues but they are issues that must now be fully confronted.

As we turn our eyes from the past to the future, we must be careful not to re-fight the previous battles but to address the issues that given the changing character of our society are the keys to the future. I hope that we have fought and put behind us the battles over public versus private programs to provide income security. I think it is clear that at this point in time we need both strong public and private programs to address the income security needs of the Nation. There are major issues as to the appropriate roles of public and private programs, but it is important to see these programs as complementary and mutually reinforcing and acting in harmony rather than as antagonistic and in conflict with one another.

This brings me to what I see as a major national priority in the years ahead. I think we need to develop an explicit national income security policy that defines appropriate roles for both public and private sector programs. I would include in these programs not only public programs such as Social Security and supplemental security income but AFDC and Medicare and Medicaid and more particular social programs that protect the health of children, the welfare of the elderly, and the participation of the disabled in our society. We should not lose sight of the fact that the original Social Security Act of 1935 dealt holistically with all of these programs and one of the unfortunate aspects of the last 50 years has been the fragmentation of outlook which has tended to treat all of these programs separately. The consequence today is that the most vulnerable of the programs have received less favorable treatment than they might have had a comprehensive national policy been in place to provide a more consistent set of social values and realistic goals.

It is also important with respect to private programs that we improve their direction and regulation and that we maximize from the standpoint of fairness and economic efficiency the tax subsidization of these programs. It is important that in the private area we address issues such as coverage, portability, vesting, Social Security integration, defined benefit versus defined contribution plans, role of IRA's, form of distribution from plans and appropriate level of retirement income and retirement ages.

Finally, as we go forward it is important not only to develop a national income security policy that gives us a set of realistic social goals for the future, but that we improve and integrate the administration and implementation of our goals and programs. We need in both the Executive and Legislative Branches to make better provision for providing a politically coherent response to problems. The one thing we know is that as our society changes our programs must be adapted and the proper functioning of our political system is vital to sound adjustment.

If in the years ahead we properly develop a national income security policy, and if we have the political will to properly implement this policy, and if we cooperate as a Nation in carrying out this noble endeavor, when some 50 years from now we reach the 100th anniversary of Social Security, we will be able perhaps to see the second 50 years as being as successful as the first. Undoubtedly, there will be stresses and strains and times of intense problems, just as there have been in the last 50 years, but in the end progress will reign and the Nation will be well served by our efforts.